They call it the hormone of happiness, we are talking about serotonin, a neurotransmitter that not only regulates mood but also plays a role in many other biological processes that affect, for example, the heart rate and regulation of appetite. Given the importance of serotonin, let's try to understand exactly its function in the body and brain and how to avoid drops in this substance.
Serotonin, what it is and how it works
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that modulates neural activity and a wide range of biological processes including learning, memory and mood but also cardiovascular function, appetite and bladder control, to give some examples (Berger et al, Annu Rev Med, 2018). As a treatment, under medical supervision, serotonin is used in cases of depression, anxiety, panic, post-traumatic stress syndrome (Bamalan et al, StatPearls Publishing, 2021). A lack of serotonin can in fact lead, in predisposed people, to an increased risk of depression but also to cardiovascular problems, alterations in the sleep wake rhythm and hunger, with a greater desire for foods rich in carbohydrates and sugars (Cowen et al, World Psychiatry., 2015). Serotonin tends to decrease with age, with the increase in the level of inflammation in the body but also in the case of a diet low in tryptophan, which is an amino acid precursor of serotonin. Fortunately, we have some strategies at our disposal to guarantee ourselves an adequate level of serotonin, but let's try to understand better (Fidalgo et al, Biogerontology, 2013).
How to increase serotonin, exercise
One way to increase serotonin levels is to practice moderate physical activity (Young et al, J Psychiatry Neurosci., 2007). In this way, in fact, it has been shown that the amount of serotonin present in the brain also increases, both because the physical exercise increases the impulses between serotonergic neurons, which are the neurons responsible for the synthesis of this neurotransmitter, and also because it increases in the brain the presence of tryptophan, the precursor of serotonin. And this increase in tryptophan does not end with physical exercise but is also observed in subsequent moments, so moderate physical activity, such as a brisk walking, brings benefits on mood even in the long term (Young et al, J Psychiatry Neurosci ., 2007).
How to increase serotonin, light
Exposure to light, especially the intense one of a sunny day, increases serotonin levels (Young et al, J Psychiatry Neurosci., 2007). But even a cloudy day helps. In fact, even in the presence of clouds, the light to which one is exposed while being outdoors is always greater than that which would be had indoors.
How to increase serotonin, the diet
No agreement has yet been reached regarding the connection between serotonin and diet. Some claim, in fact, that tryptophan, precursor of serotonin and an amino acid contained in various foods, when taken through the diet fails to increase serotonin levels in the brain. In fact, tryptophan is generally the least present amino acid and loses competition with other more abundant amino acids that, on the other hand, are able to be transported to the brain. Conversely, there are studies that instead indicate that a diet deficient in tryptophan has led to a reduction of tryptophan and hence of serotonin in the brain (Cowen et al, World Psychiatry., 2015). Not only that, research was also conducted that demonstrated that among those who had eaten a diet rich in tryptophan there were fewer cases of depression and anxiety than those who had instead followed a diet low in tryptophan (Lindseth et al, Arch Psychiatr Nurs, 2016). Therefore, a varied diet that also includes foods containing tryptophan, such as peppers, hazelnuts, tomatoes, pineapples, plums, passion fruit, kiwis but also spinach, witloof chicory, spring onions, lettuce and coffee, is certainly a good choice (Briguglio et al, Nutrients , 2018). Bananas do contain high levels of tryptophan but mainly in the peel and not in the pulp. Never missing fiber-rich salads along with tryptophan-rich fruits and vegetables is also important because fiber, slowing down food absorption, helps keep serotonin levels constant (Singh et al, J Nutr Food Sci, 2016). Not only that, inflammation can also play a role in reducing the values of tryptophan and therefore of serotonin. And we know that inflammation can also be kept under control with lifestyle and diet (Cowen et al, World Psychiatry., 2015). Foods rich in antioxidants, omega 3 and vitamin D have been found to be particularly effective in combating inflammation and increasing levels of tryptophan and serotonin (Strasser et al, Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care, 2016). So, green light for foods such as mango, papaya, flaxseed, chia seeds, fatty fish, avocado, but also ginger, turmeric, green tea and legumes (Bustamante et al, Contemp Clin Trials Commun., 2020).