The most important thing is to get the right ingredients to make serotonin from the diet, and these are a good intake of animal or fish protein; good levels of stomach acid to break these proteins down and high quality fish oils . What you eat your protein with also affects serotonin production.
First improve digestion. To assume that depression is caused entirely by a lack of serotonin is simplistic. Robert Rakowski has likened taking anti-depressants to throwing darts in the dark in the hope of hitting the target. Following on from all the recent digestion blogs, it seems to me that a better course of action is to do all possible to bring the guts into good working order so the body can uptake the nutrients it needs to help balance its neurotransmitters – of which serotonin is but one. Depression has many causes and if neurotransmitter imbalance is one of them, it is certainly worth giving the body the right ingredients to make whichever neurotransmitter(s) is down – plus the ability to get at those nutrients.
Fish oils raise serotonin, particularly those with a high DHA content. This is because DHA is important in the conversion of tryptophan1 to serotonin. And this is the second most important way of naturally raising serotonin since fish oils cure many other ills as well – and chronic illness itself can lead to depression2.
With these 2 planks in place, a good way of raising serotonin levels is to eat protein along with starchy or sugary carbs. Good dietary sources of tryptophan are meats, fish and seeds3. All these foods contain various proteins and in the normal course of events, the other proteins are uptaken in preference to tryptophan. How to get round this is by increasing insulin levels4.
Now as body builders and people who’ve read my ‘How To Eat Well For The Working Athlete’ page know, straight after a workout, if you take amino acids, called Branch Chain Amino Acids, along with something sweet, insulin rises and these vital amino acids are diverted to the muscles where they are used to restore, rebuild and repair. And this happens for all of us who raise our insulin levels – any protein in the food gets shunted to the muscles, leaving the way clear for tryptophan uptake. And this is one reason why vigorous exercise is mood elevating after it stops.56
Since serotonin levels – and serotonin makes us feel calm and in control – are raised along with insulin levels, this is one reason cravings develop. Repeatedly raising insulin levels, especially when insulin raising foods7 are eaten alone, leads to blood sugar surges and crashes, which of themselves lead to craving more sugary foods and drinks and so can lead to mood swings, unsteady energy levels, fatness and ultimately developing type 2 diabetes.
Because serotonin is the relaxed, happy, sleepy neurotransmitter, be careful about raising levels too high during the day when you are wanting to be productive. The previous blog ‘Does what we eat affect our mood?’ with the 2 chess players, one eating meat and vegetables for lunch vs the other with tagliatelle with an asparagus sauce is now clearer as to why the pasta man felt so sleepy.
The final blog on serotonin will cover a few ways of raising serotonin without recourse to drugs, supplements or food!
- tryptophan is an amino acid. Amino acids are the components of proteins. In order for the body to break down dietary proteins, good levels of stomach acid and pepsin are necessary [↩]
- This is based on the work of Bud Craig, a functional neuroanatomist working at Arizona State University. More about him and his findings another time. [↩]
- turkey is reputedly high in tryptophan, but in fact is not significantly different to other meats. It is supposed that the reason for turkey’s reputation is more to do with the usual consumption of turkey is at Christmas (or Thanksgiving) where we all traditionally over eat then slump in front of the TV snoozing through the Queen’s speech [↩]
- insulin is the fat storage hormone that is raised when blood sugar rises. High blood sugar levels are injurious to the brain and so levels have to be controlled to avoid brain damage – and this is the job of insulin. [↩]
- Bananas are a source of tryptophan, but there isn’t as much in them as in the other protein foods – however because they are sugary, this will be why tryptophan uptake happens after eating them. [↩]
- Fernstrom JD, Wurtman RJ. ‘Brain Serotonin content: Physiological Regulation By Plasma Neural Amino Acids’. Science, New Series, Vol 178, No. 4059 (Oct 27, 1972), 414-416. [↩]
- starchy and sugary carbs such as biscuits, crisps, bread, fruit juices, sweetened drinks [↩]