A Serotonin-Rich Diet

by Erica Wickham, M.S., R.D., C.D.N.

About Erica Wickham, M.S., R.D., C.D.N.

Erica Wickham covers health, exercise and lifestyle topics for various websites. She completed an internship in dietetics and earned a Master of Science in dietetics from D’Youville College in Buffalo, N.Y. Wickham now serves as a registered dietitian.


Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in the brain that is responsible for transmitting signals between neurons. Serotonin plays a crucial role in regulating mood and behavior. Low levels of serotonin in the body are associated with depression and anxiety. When serotonin levels increase, individuals experience feelings of happiness and overall well-being. Healthy serotonin levels are a key to mental and physical health. Eating a variety of foods will help the body to produce and maintain appropriate levels.


Tryptophan is an essential amino acid or a building block of protein required as a precursor to serotonin in the brain. Tryptophan is found in protein-rich foods, such as turkey, chicken, lean cuts of pork, veal, soy products, milk, a variety of cheeses, yogurt, eggs, nuts and beans. However, a high-protein diet increases competition between tryptophan and five other amino acids for passage through the blood-brain barrier where serotonin is produced. Carbohydrates are needed to clear the way for tryptophan to enter the brain. When serotonin levels drop, you may crave tryptophan-rich foods.


Tryptophan is more efficiently converted into serotonin when consumed with carbohydrates. Insulin secreted during carbohydrate digestion enables muscle tissue to take up most of the five amino acids competing with tryptophan. This process clears the way for greater amounts of tryptophan to reach your brain for serotonin synthesis. Oatmeal, barley, buckwheat, brown rice, bananas, nuts, squash, sweet potatoes, legumes, melon, green leafy vegetables and citrus fruits are examples of healthy carbohydrates. A 1/4 cup serving of a carbohydrate-rich food will significantly boost serotonin levels in the body.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy fats found in flaxseed, nuts, vegetable oils and fish, including mackerel, herring, tuna, salmon and trout. These essential fatty acids do not produce serotonin, but they play a vital role in brain health and mood regulation. Flaxseed contains both omega-3 fatty acids and tryptophan. You might find that daily flaxseed consumption dramatically improves your mood. Consuming fish at least twice a week will also provide you with adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.

B Vitamins

The B-complex vitamins are necessary for a number of functions throughout the body, including protein synthesis and carbohydrate metabolism. Niacin is an important component in the production of tryptophan. Vitamin B12 and folic acid are necessary for the metabolism of neurotransmitters, thereby boosting serotonin levels. These vitamins are associated with improved mood and cognitive function. Thiamine is one of the most important vitamins known to improve serotonin function. Increasing thiamine intake can lead to a positive mood and improved sense of well-being. B vitamins are found primarily in fortified cereals, fish, poultry, beans, meat, whole grains, nuts and dairy.

Vitamin D

Serotonin is a natural stimulant, enhancing your mood and increasing your energy. Melatonin, an essential neurotransmitter created from serotonin, regulates your sleep cycle. Sunlight, which contains vitamin D, helps your body to burn off melatonin, allowing your serotonin levels to rise. Without exposure to natural light, your melatonin levels would be higher, suppressing your serotonin levels. Adequate sunlight exposure requires being in the sun for at least two hours throughout the day.

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This article reflects the views of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Jillian Michaels or JillianMichaels.com.