As I have mentioned in the past, I teach nutrition at the University of Denver as part of a research study in the Department of Psychology. It’s a fairly small commitment - just two weeks out of every eight, for about 18 months. However, I really enjoy the groups and it’s particularly fun when they are interested in nutrition and come to class full of questions for me.

I changed things up a bit this round, because 2.5 hours of the food pyramid is just too dry for a Wednesday evening. So, we spent the first hour and a half discussing serotonin: what it is, how it affects the body, what depletes it, and how it is related to diet. Since the participants in the study all have a history of depression, this topic is particularly relevant to them.

Statistic: It is estimated that more than 80% of adults have a serotonin deficiency.

I came across the above statistic in my research. Serotonin levels can fluctuate on a daily basis and I know I can recognize when my own levels are lower than they should be. I thought I’d share an overview of what I taught last night, because we can all probably benefit from some information on how to boost serotonin!

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, not a hormone. However, it works closely with hormones and is dependent on hormonal balance for proper function. It is manufactured from tryptophan, which is a protein that must be obtained from the diet. Therefore, a diet low in protein will lead to low serotonin levels.

Serotonin contributes to feelings of well-being, and regulates mood, appetite and sleep. It is our primary defense against feelings of depression and anxiety. So what can lead to low serotonin levels?

Genes: Some people simply genetically have lower serotonin levels in their body. These people must work extra hard to increase and maintain their levels using things like diet and exercise.

Chronic Stress: Long-term stress, whether it be physical or emotional, can deplete serotonin levels over time. Managing stress is a key to maintaining a happy, healthy mood.

Sunlight: Low exposure to sunlight can deplete serotonin. Serotonin deficiency is related to Seasonal Affective Disorder, which includes feelings of sadness or depression during the winter months or in the evenings. Light plays a crucial role in serotonin production.

Lack of Exercise: Physical activity has a mood-enhancing effect – if you’re an exerciser, you’ll agree with this. A lack of exercise depletes serotonin.

Diet: Proteins and healthy fats are pro-serotonin foods, while things like caffeine, soda, coffee, fake sugars, and processed foods are all anti-serotonin foods.

Our serotonin levels become depleted when we are not consuming a balanced diet. A low-calorie, low-fat, low-carb, or low-protein diet can significantly alter our serotonin levels and affect our mood. Tryptophan is an essential protein that we must obtain from the diet. It is found in high-protein foods such as turkey, chicken, pork, beef, seafood and eggs. In addition, a diet high in essential fats will support an increase in the availability of protein in the brain for serotonin production. Vitamins and minerals, which are obtained from plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, are needed to convert the tryptophan to serotonin. As you can see, a balanced and varied diet is essential for proper serotonin levels, and therefore for a balanced, happy mood.

Although things like drugs, alcohol, sugar, and processed foods can temporarily increase serotonin, they quickly lead to a crash and will severely deplete serotonin levels over time. Many people turn to these things to experience a short-term “high,” only to lose it a short time later. Cravings for sugar or alcohol could be your body’s way of telling you that its serotonin levels are low and it needs more protein and healthy fats.

Finally, spend time outside to support healthy levels of serotonin. The activity and sunlight are so healthy for all of us, and since it’s spring now, there is no excuse not to be outside enjoying the weather!