Natural remedies for increasing serotonin levels can be as effective as or more effective than antidepressants, with far less side effects. And when you combine natural remedies with a good pro-serotonin diet and adequate sunshine, your serotonin blues will be a thing of the past.
A natural amino acid called 5-HTP is one of the fastest and most effective ways to increase your serotonin levels. Your body produces serotonin by converting an amino acid called tryptophan into 5-HTP then converting the 5-HTP into serotonin. 5-HTP supplements boost serotonin levels by providing your body with more of the basic building blocks it needs for serotonin production.
One of my favorite research studies used 5-HTP to treat 99 people with serious, long term, treatment resistant depression. These people had been depressed for an average of 9 years and were still depressed after trying other treatments such as antidepressants. Almost half of the patients recovered completely with 5-HTP and many others improved significantly, an overwhelming response for such a difficult group of patients to treat.
In The Mood Cure: The 4-Step Program to Take Charge of Your Emotions–Today, Julia Ross recommends that you work out your dosage by starting with a 50 mg capsule of 5-HTP in the middle of the afternoon. If you don’t notice much improvement after an hour, take another 50 mg capsule and if you still don’t notice any improvement after another hour, take a third 50 mg capsule. If you haven’t noticed any improvement after this, don’t increase your dosage any more – most people notice an improvement within an hour but some for some people it does take a little longer.
Once you’ve worked out your dosage, take this amount twice a day, mid afternoon and 30 minutes before bed. To start with, you might notice that your mood improves for a few hours then drops again. This is perfectly natural in the beginning as your serotonin starved brain can use up the extra serotonin quickly. Over time, as your serotonin levels build up, you should see a consistent improvement in your mood.
5-HTP is best taken between meals. If you take it at the same time as a meal containing protein, the other amino acids from the protein you have eaten will compete with the 5-HTP to get across the blood brain barrier. The other amino acids tend to crowd 5-HTP out and prevent it from getting into the brain where it’s needed.
Over time, your serotonin levels will build up and eventually you should be able to cut back or stop taking 5-HTP. If you start to feel too relaxed, feel sleepy during the day or get a mild headache after taking your 5-HTP, this is usually an indication that you have enough serotonin and you should cut back or stop taking 5-HTP. At this point, you might want to keep a bottle in the cupboard just in case you need again it at times of high stress when your brain uses up extra serotonin.
Side effects are rare with 5-HTP but they do happen occasionally. The most common side effects are stomach pain or discomfort, nightmares, and low libido.
If you have nightmares, try taking your 5-HTP mid morning and mid afternoon instead of mid afternoon and before bed. If you experience low libido, this might mean that you have dopamine deficiency. Dopamine is another neurotransmitter that is involved in depression and in sexual arousal.
If you have any other problems or if you don’t notice a significant improvement within a week of starting 5-HTP, try one of the other supplements for increasing serotonin below.
Your body needs a good supply of vitamin B6 to help convert 5-HTP to serotonin. B vitamins can be very easily depleted if you are under stress or you eat a lot of sugar, and vitamin B deficiencies are very common in people with depression. A good quality B complex taken with breakfast can help boost the conversion of 5-HTP to serotonin and give you a better result than taking 5-HTP alone.
Vitamin D and Sunlight
Your body also needs vitamin D to help convert 5-HTP to serotonin. You can get some vitamin D from your diet, but it’s extremely difficult to get enough vitamin D from diet alone. Most of your vitamin D should be produced by your body when you get outside in the sun.
15 to 30 minutes of bright sunshine a day in shorts and a t-shirt and without sunscreen is enough for most people to get the vitamin D they need. But with many of us spending most of our time inside in artificial lighting, vitamin D deficiencies are becoming increasingly common.
I highly recommend seeing your physician and getting a blood test for vitamin D deficiency. If your levels are low, you can take a vitamin D supplement or, if possible, spend more time out in the sun. Your body can store vitamin D for long periods of time so if you get enough sunshine in the summer, you should be able to build up enough vitamin D to last you through the colder, winter months. But if you are already low, a Vitamin D supplement taken in addition to your 5-HTP can help boost your vitamin D levels and increase your conversion of 5-HTP to serotonin.
Tryptophan is an alternative to 5-HTP and can be used to increase serotonin levels by the small number of people who experience side effects with 5-HTP. Tryptophan is converted to 5-HTP and then used to produce serotonin in the body. The Mood Cure recommends taking 500 mg – 1500 mg twice a day, mid afternoon and at bedtime.
St John’s Wort
If you are one of the very few people who has problems with both 5-HTP and tryptophan, a herb called St John’s Wort can also be used to increase serotonin levels. A typical dosage is between 300 and 900 mg twice a day, with lunch and with dinner.
SAMe is a chemical that is present in every cell of our bodies and has many different functions. One of the things it does is to slow down the breakdown of serotonin, allowing it to work for longer. It also increases the production of serotonin receptors and may help make serotonin receptors more sensitive, increasing the effect of serotonin in the brain.
Most people who are low in serotonin won’t need to take SAMe, but if 5-HTP and vitamin B don’t work for you, you could be one of the smaller number of people who need to take SAMe. You are particularly likely to need SAME if you are over 40, have overused alcohol, cocaine or other stimulants, or have arthritis or liver problems.
Try 800 mg with breakfast and 800 mg with lunch. SAMe doesn’t work as quickly as 5-HTP so you should take it for a month to see if it works. If SAMe does work for you, you may be able to cut your dosage to 400 mg with breakfast and 400 mg with lunch after a month or two.
Serotonin boosting supplements are the fastest and most effective way to increase your serotonin levels, but a healthy diet with plenty of pro-serotonin foods is extremely important to maintain good levels of serotonin throughout your life.
Exercise has been shown to be one of the most effective antidepressants and is a great way to boost serotonin levels. However when you’re feeling depressed, it can be very difficult to drag yourself out to the gym.
If you can’t face the thought of exercising, you might want to start by using supplements to increase your serotonin levels, then add in some exercise once you’re mood starts to improve. You don’t need to overdo it – 30 minutes of walking 3 or 4 times a week is enough to have a beneficial, antidepressant effect, though 30 minutes 5 or 6 times a week is even better.
Studies have shown that people who stick to a regular exercise program are much less likely to have a relapse than those who don’t exercise.
We’ve already talked about the importance of sunlight for Vitamin D production, but it seems that light has another, less well understood effect on depression. Light therapy involves sitting under a bright light for a period of time each day, and has been shown to be very effective for seasonal affective disorder (depression that’s worse in Winter). It can also be effective for other types of depression.
Light therapy probably works by having an effect on melatonin and the body clock. When it gets dark our bodies start to convert serotonin into a substance called melatonin which makes us sleepy.
During the night, melatonin levels are high and serotonin levels are low. When it gets light in the morning, melatonin levels drop, serotonin levels increase and we wake up and become more alert. Using light therapy at the correct time of day can help to regulate your body clock and your melatonin/serotonin balance.
If you have seasonal affective disorder or if you’ve tried the other treatments for increasing serotonin levels and they haven’t worked for you, light therapy could be a good option for you.
The best information I’ve found on light therapy is in a book called the Mood Cure, by Dr Stephen Ilardi. Doctor Ilardi recommends that you time your lightbox usage according to your sleep patterns:
- If you have trouble getting to sleep, start by sitting under a light box for 30 minutes each morning, within an hour of getting up
- If you wake up too early in the morning, start by sitting under a light box for 30 minutes in the afternoon, about half an hour before you usually go to bed.
- If you sleep well, start by sitting under a light box for 30 minutes in the morning, between 30 minutes and 2 hours after you wake up.
If you don’t notice any improvement within a week, try increasing your usage to an hour a day.
The Uplift Technologies DL930 Day-Light is a good light therapy lamp – it uses the correct kind of light, is sturdy and well built and can be hung on the wall or used on a desk. If you prefer a smaller, more portable lamp, the Nature Bright Sun Touch Lamp is a good choice.
The last thing to consider is a condition called pyroluria that causes low serotonin levels, depression, anxiety and social withdrawal. People with pryoluria have extremely low levels of vitamin B6 and zinc and need to take quite high dosages of these nutrients to increase serotonin levels.