How To Increase Serotonin: Naturally & With Medication

To increase serotonin naturally, one can exercise regularly, consume a diet rich in tryptophan-containing foods like turkey and eggs, get adequate sunlight exposure, practice stress-reducing techniques such as meditation, and maintain a consistent sleep schedule.

Increasing serotonin

What Is Serotonin?

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, commonly called the “feel-good” chemical, that plays a vital role in regulating mood, sleep, appetite, and various physiological functions in the human body.

Since serotonin is associated with feelings of happiness, if there are low serotonin levels, it makes sense to believe this would contribute to lower happiness levels.

Many symptoms are associated with low levels of serotonin.  Some of these include feeling low in mood, anxious feelings, irritability, feelings of depression, and low self-esteem.

man walking on country road at sunset
Engaging in certain natural methods, such as regular exercise, practicing mindfulness, and maintaining a balanced diet, can potentially enhance serotonin levels in the brain.

Low serotonin levels have been associated with some mental health conditions, mostly mood disorders. If symptoms of low serotonin persist, this risks the development of conditions such as depression.

Depression is a mental health condition associated with sadness, hopelessness, and sometimes suicidal thoughts. Other mental health conditions have also shown associations with low serotonin, such as anxiety disorders and schizophrenia.

6 Ways to Increase Serotonin Naturally

There is evidence that lifestyle changes and other non-medicative methods can improve the levels of serotonin naturally in the brain.

Usually, medication can be prescribed for individuals suffering from a clinical mood disorder. This is often when the symptoms of low serotonin make daily life difficult for individuals. 

However, preventing people from getting to a stage where symptoms interfere with daily functioning is preferable to waiting until they are at a stage where they require medication.

Medication may not always be appropriate for some individuals who may only be experiencing mild symptoms of low serotonin, or in children and adolescents, where these medications are not usually recommended due to risky side effects in these populations.

Nonmedicated methods of raising brain serotonin may not only improve mood but may also help protect against the onset of various mental health conditions.

Below are some ways to increase serotonin naturally: 

some of the ways to boost serotonin naturally
How to boost serotonin naturally.


One method that may increase serotonin levels is exercise. Exercise, especially aerobic exercise, has been shown to improve the moods and anxiety of people with clinical mental health problems (Lattari et al., 2018).

Completing exercises such as running, walking, cycling, and swimming until fatigued may be associated with elevated serotonin levels in the brain. 

There has been a change in the level of vigorous physical exercise that is required since humans were hunter-gatherers or mostly worked in agriculture.

It has been suggested that this decline in vigorous physical exercise on a daily basis may contribute to why there are a higher number of people with depression in today’s society.

Mindfulness and meditation

Mindfulness and meditation have been found to positively impact serotonin levels in the brain. Here’s how they can naturally increase serotonin:

  1. Stress reduction: Mindfulness and meditation techniques help reduce stress levels by activating the body’s relaxation response. Chronic stress can deplete serotonin levels, and by managing stress through mindfulness, the body can restore a healthy balance of serotonin.

  2. Regulation of emotions: Mindfulness and meditation practices cultivate emotional regulation by enhancing self-awareness and acceptance. By observing thoughts and emotions without judgment, individuals can develop a healthier relationship with their emotions, which may positively impact serotonin production and regulation.

  3. Enhancing neural pathways: Regular mindfulness and meditation practice can strengthen neural pathways in the brain, including those involved in regulating emotions and mood. This may lead to more efficient serotonin signaling and increased serotonin production.

  4. Increased well-being: Mindfulness and meditation are associated with improved overall well-being, including enhanced mood, positivity, and resilience. These positive emotional states are often accompanied by higher serotonin levels in the brain.

  5. Improved sleep quality: Mindfulness and meditation practices can support better sleep by calming the mind, reducing anxiety, and promoting relaxation. Quality sleep is crucial for serotonin production and regulation.

It’s important to note that the effects of mindfulness and meditation on serotonin can vary between individuals. Regular practice over an extended period is typically necessary to experience significant changes.

Good sleep hygiene 

Sleep plays a crucial role in naturally increasing serotonin levels.

During sleep, the body undergoes important restorative processes, including the regulation of neurotransmitters like serotonin. Adequate and regular sleep helps maintain a healthy circadian rhythm, which supports optimal serotonin production.

It allows for efficient serotonin synthesis by converting tryptophan (an amino acid) into serotonin. Sufficient sleep duration also prevents the depletion of serotonin caused by chronic stress, promoting a healthy balance of serotonin in the brain.

Serotonin regulates the sleep-wake cycle, promotes a regular sleep schedule, and supports the body’s ability to fall asleep and wake up at appropriate times.

Adequate sleep is essential for emotional well-being. Serotonin is crucial for mood regulation, and a lack of sleep can lead to imbalances in serotonin levels, potentially resulting in mood disturbances and negative emotions.

To support natural serotonin production, prioritize healthy sleep habits. Maintain a consistent sleep schedule, create a conducive sleep environment, and practice good sleep hygiene.

Ensuring sufficient sleep duration and quality can help increase serotonin levels naturally, promoting better mood, emotional well-being, and overall health.

Diet and supplements

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that can be converted into serotonin in the brain and can only be accessed through foods. This amino acid can be converted into serotonin, making it a key element for brain functioning, potentially impacting mood.

Tryptophan is primarily obtained from animal or plant-based protein sources. However, it can come as a supplement on its own. Tryptophan supplements contain much more tryptophan than food, so these should provide individuals with a boost of serotonin.

It is also thought that not only a diet rich in tryptophan but also a diet rich in antioxidants can have a positive impact on mood and cognition.

Another supplement worth mentioning is 5-HTP.

5-htp supplement capsules in the jar. dietary supplement editorial photo

This is a supplement that can produce more serotonin in the brain. In a study of those with early symptoms of depression, 5-HTP supplements were found to have an antidepressant effect in these individuals after two weeks of treatment. The therapeutic effects of this supplement were considered equal to that of fluoxetine, an SSRI (Jangid et al., 2013).

Light therapy

Exposure to bright light is a second possible method for increasing serotonin without medication. Being in the sunlight can produce vitamin D, which plays a role in the body, promoting serotonin production.

a woman sat in front of a light box - light therapy

Although too much sunlight and exposure to UV rays can harm the skin, it is understood that some sunlight daily can help alleviate low moods.

As was the case already discussed for exercise, in the past, more people were involved in agriculture and were outside for much of the day. This would have resulted in high levels of bright light exposure even in the winter, which may be a contributing factor to why depression appears to be more common these days.

Bright light, in the form of a SAD light, for instance, is a standard treatment for those suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

However, one does not have to have SAD to benefit from light therapy. It may work to increase serotonin levels for anyone. 

Enjoyable activities

Engaging in joyful activities can naturally increase serotonin levels in several ways:

  1. Pleasure and reward: Participating in activities that bring joy and pleasure stimulates the brain’s reward system. This activation releases serotonin, contributing to positive emotions and a sense of satisfaction.

  2. Stress reduction: Engaging in enjoyable activities can help reduce stress levels.

  3. Social connection: Many joyful activities may involve social interaction, which is beneficial for serotonin production. Positive social interactions and connections trigger the release of serotonin, promoting feelings of happiness and well-being.

  4. Mindfulness and presence: When engaged in enjoyable activities, individuals often experience a state of flow, where they are fully present and immersed in the experience. This state of mindfulness enhances serotonin production by reducing stress and promoting a sense of contentment.

  5. Self-care and happiness: Prioritizing activities that bring joy and happiness can contribute to self-care and overall well-being. Taking time for oneself and engaging in activities that promote happiness can positively impact serotonin levels and improve mood.

Increasing Serotonin with Medication

Medications for increasing serotonin levels, particularly antidepressants, have been prescribed to treat conditions such as depression and anxiety.

These medications work by having a direct influence on the brain chemistry involved in neurotransmission. The most commonly used antidepressants which affect serotonin levels are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs).

While there is a lot of support for the use of medication, it is worth bearing in mind that medications work differently for everyone, and thus, they may not be the right choice for many people.

If you’re considering medication, it is strongly recommended to consult a qualified healthcare professional or mental health provider for personalized guidance. They can assess your needs, evaluate risks and benefits, and ensure a suitable treatment plan. 


Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)

SSRIs are the most prescribed antidepressant medication to increase serotonin levels in the brain. This medication is typically prescribed to treat the symptoms associated with conditions such as depression and anxiety.

SSRIs work by blocking serotonin reabsorption, preventing the reuptake of this chemical by the neuron which released it. As this medication prevents serotonin from being reabsorbed back into the presynaptic neuron, more serotonin will be circulating around the synaptic cleft.

If there is more serotonin in the synaptic cleft, this makes it more likely that serotonin will reach the receptors on the postsynaptic neuron, meaning that serotonin has a better chance of traveling around the brain and improving mood.

SSRIs are the most common treatment for increasing serotonin levels because they have the least negative side effects compared to other medications, which work in a similar manner, making SSRIs more tolerable.

There are, however, some side effects that could be experienced as a result of taking this medication. Some side effects may include headaches, nausea, change in weight, sexual dysfunction, sleep problems, and agitation.

Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs)

TCAs are an older classification of antidepressants compared to SSRIs and are less prescribed. This medication works in a similar way to SSRIs as they also work to block the reuptake of serotonin.

TCAs also block the reuptake of another neurotransmitter called norepinephrine, also known as noradrenaline, which also affects mood. Although this medication works similarly to SSRIs, they are believed to be not as tolerable due to their many side effects.

Some side effects that could occur as a result of taking this medication are fatigue, headaches, disorientation, sexual dysfunction, irregular heart rate, and weight gain.

Aside from these side effects, it is often not recommended that alcohol is consumed whilst also taking this medication since alcohol can counteract the TCAs effects.

Also, some other medications can have adverse reactions when taken alongside TCAs, such as EpiPens, which are filled with adrenaline. Using an EpiPen alongside TCAs could result in heart rhythm problems and high blood pressure.

Likewise, TCAs are known to increase blood sugar levels, meaning that there would be a high risk to those who have diabetes if they were to take this medication.

As TCAs can also affect the heart rhythm, those who have existing heart problems would probably not be prescribed this medication.

Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)

Another older type of antidepressant that is used to increase serotonin levels are MAOIs. This medication works differently from SSRIs and TCAs, which block serotonin reuptake.

Instead, MAOIs affect the enzyme which breaks down the serotonin in the synaptic cleft, known as monoamine oxidase. MAOIs work by preventing serotonin from being destroyed by monoamine oxidase.

If serotonin is not destroyed by this enzyme, this means that there will be more serotonin circulating around the synaptic cleft, making it more likely that serotonin will reach the receptors on the postsynaptic neuron.

This type of medication is not typically used as the first option for people with low levels of serotonin due to the strong side effects associated with taking this.

Some of the side effects include nausea, dizziness, insomnia, and restlessness. MAOIs can also have an effect on other neurotransmitters in the brain unintentionally, which can cause other unwarranted side effects.

This medication also comes with dietary precautions that need to be followed when taking the medication as they can cause adverse reactions when taken in combination with certain foods.

Foods and drinks that should be avoided include alcohol, strong cheeses, cured and processed meats, and soybeans.

Finally, MAOIs could have negative reactions when mixed with other medications and, in some rare cases, can also cause dangerously high levels of serotonin, known as serotonin syndrome.

What causes low serotonin levels?

Low serotonin levels could be caused by a few factors. It could be that not enough serotonin is being produced in the brain. Another potential cause of low serotonin can result from insufficient serotonin receptors in the brain, or these receptors are not functioning as they should.

As a result of these issues, it could be the case that too much serotonin is being broken down in the synaptic cleft by enzymes or reabsorbed back into the presynaptic neuron at an excessive rate.

Also, if not enough serotonin is produced in the first place, this limits the amount reaching the serotonin receptors of the postsynaptic neuron.

Can You Have Too Much Serotonin?

Although increasing serotonin levels is beneficial for improving mood and treating some mental health conditions such as depression, a surplus of serotonin in the brain can be detrimental.

Having too much serotonin in the brain can result in a condition known as serotonin syndrome. Often, serotonin syndrome can result from some medications that are being taken to increase low serotonin levels.

Serotonin syndrome

This can sometimes arise after taking MAOIs and TCAs. Serotonin syndrome is more likely to happen after starting to take a new medication or when the dosage of an existing medication has increased. Some of the symptoms associated with serotonin syndrome can be quite mild.

These can include high blood pressure, headaches, restlessness, confusion, and shivering. These mild symptoms of serotonin syndrome may go away within a day or two of stopping the medication that is causing symptoms on the advice of a doctor.

However, if this is not treated, then the symptoms can become worse. Some of the worst symptoms can include irregular heartbeat, seizures, and unconsciousness, and may sometimes even result in death in the most severe cases.

To help prevent serotonin syndrome from occurring, it is advised to talk through all the side effects of medications with a doctor before they are prescribed.

Cases of serotonin syndrome resulting in hospitalization or death are very rare. Most of the time, medicative intervention is not required but can be managed by stopping the drug or decreasing the dose (Foong et al., 2018).

Frequently Asked Questions

Where is serotonin produced in the brain?

Serotonin is primarily produced in a part of the brain called the raphe nuclei.

These nuclei are located deep within the brainstem, which is the lower part of the brain connecting to the spinal cord.

The raphe nuclei release serotonin, which then travels to different areas of the brain, affecting our mood, sleep, appetite, and other important functions.

So, think of the raphe nuclei as the brain’s serotonin factories that produce and distribute this important neurotransmitter throughout the brain to help regulate our emotions and well-being.

How long does it take to see the effects of natural serotonin boosters?

The time it takes to see the effects of natural serotonin boosters can vary depending on several factors, including individual metabolism, lifestyle, and the specific methods used.

In some cases, such as engaging in physical exercise or spending time in natural sunlight, the effects can be relatively immediate, with improvements in mood and well-being noticed within a few hours.

However, for other methods like dietary changes or supplementation, it may take several days or weeks of consistent practice to observe noticeable changes in serotonin levels and associated benefits.

It’s important to be patient and maintain a consistent approach when using natural serotonin boosters to allow sufficient time for the body to respond and adjust.

What are some of the common side effects of medications that target serotonin levels?

Common side effects of medications used to increase serotonin levels, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), may include nausea, headache, dizziness, drowsiness, sexual dysfunction, and gastrointestinal disturbances.

These side effects can vary in intensity and duration among individuals. It’s important to note that not everyone experiences these side effects, and they often subside as the body adjusts to the medication.

It’s recommended to consult a healthcare professional for personalized information regarding specific medications and potential side effects.


Foong, A. L., Grindrod, K. A., Patel, T., & Kellar, J. (2018). Demystifying serotonin syndrome (or serotonin toxicity). Canadian Family Physician64(10), 720-727.

Jangid, P., Malik, P., Singh, P., & Sharma, M. (2013). Comparative study of efficacy of l-5-hydroxytryptophan and fluoxetine in patients presenting with first depressive episode. Asian journal of psychiatry, 6 (1), 29-34.

Lattari, E., Budde, H., Paes, F., Neto, G. A. M., Appolinario, J. C., Nardi, A. E., Murillo-Rodriguez, E. & Machado, S. (2018). Effects of aerobic exercise on anxiety symptoms and cortical activity in patients with panic disorder: a pilot study. Clinical practice and epidemiology in mental health: CP & EMH, 14, 11.

Murphy, S. E., Longhitano, C., Ayres, R. E., Cowen, P. J., & Harmer, C. J. (2006). Tryptophan supplementation induces a positive bias in the processing of emotional material in healthy female volunteers. Psychopharmacology, 187 (1), 121-130.

Strasser, B., Gostner, J. M., & Fuchs, D. (2016). Mood, food, and cognition: role of tryptophan and serotonin. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care, 19 (1), 55-61.

Young, S. N. (2007). How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. Journal of psychiatry & neuroscience: JPN, 32 (6), 394.

Further Reading

Olivier B. Serotonin: A never-ending story. European Journal of Pharmacology. 2015;753:2-18.

Harmer, C. J., Duman, R. S., & Cowen, P. J. (2017). How do antidepressants work? New perspectives for refining future treatment approaches. The Lancet Psychiatry, 4(5), 409-418.

Cowen, P. J., & Browning, M. (2015). What has serotonin to do with depression?. World Psychiatry, 14(2), 158.

Lin, S. H., Lee, L. T., & Yang, Y. K. (2014). Serotonin and mental disorders: a concise review on molecular neuroimaging evidence. Clinical Psychopharmacology and Neuroscience, 12(3), 196.

Banskota, S., Ghia, J. E., & Khan, W. I. (2019). Serotonin in the gut: Blessing or a curse. Biochimie, 161, 56-64.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

.content-unmask .mv-ad-box { display:none; } #printfriendly { line-height: 1.7; } #printfriendly #pf-title { font-size: 40px; }