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Nutrition Talks: Serotonin

What is serotonin?

  • Serotonin is a neurotransmitter– a type of chemical that relays messages within the brain and body. It’s known for triggering feelings of happiness, and is involved in regulating mood, appetite, memory, sexual behavior, and sleep­.

How is it made?

  • Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that is needed to synthesize serotonin.
  • We obtain tryptophan from dietary protein, which eventually breaks down into individual amino acids.

How can I boost my serotonin levels?

  • As I mentioned, tryptophan is the building block for serotonin, and there are foods you can eat that are rich in this essential amino acid.  It sounds pretty simple–eat foods rich in tryptophan and I’m good on the serotonin.
  • Well it gets a little tricky. When you eat a high protein meal, there are other amino acids involved that are competing to enter the brain. When this happens, only a small amount of tryptophan is actually absorbed, and hence only a small of serotonin is made.
  • You can change this by eating a carbohydrate-rich meal, which actually triggers an insulin release, and causes all amino acids EXCEPT tryptophan to be absorbed the body and not the brain.
  • In a nutshell, you’ve just eliminated all of your amino acid competition, and will have just tryptophan flowing into your brain, which will lead to an increase in serotonin levels.

What other things can you do to help aide absorption?

  • Make sure you’re getting enough vitamin B-6, which influences the rate at which tryptophan is converted into serotonin.
  • Vitamin C, folic acid, and magnesium are also vital in the metabolism of tryptophan.

What foods are rich in tryptophan?

  • Tuna, spinach, cod, tofu, asparagus, basil, mustard greens, thyme, soybeans, sea vegetables, oregano, collards, chard, kale, black beans, and kidney beans are just a few. Make sure you eat these with a carbohydrate (aim for whole grains, root vegetables) to promote proper absorption.

Be aware!

  • Although there are foods that contain naturally occurring serotonin, and may be marketed as such, this is of no use to us. Serotonin does not cross the blood-brain barrier, which basically means that it enters our blood, but not the brain.
  • Tryptophan DOES pass the blood-brain barrier, meaning it enters our brains, which is where all the serotonin action happens.


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