A chemical that occurs naturally in the brain, serotonin is one of many important neurotransmitters — compounds that help carry signals from one area of the brain to another. Serotonin is believed to influence many psychological and other functions throughout the body, including mood, memory, appetite, and sleep. It can also affect the functioning of the cardiovascular system, muscles, and the endocrine system.

Low serotonin levels are widely believed to be an underlying cause of depression and other negative health conditions. If you feel that your cognitive abilities are impaired, you have difficulty sleeping, or you suffer from anxiety or depression, you may have low levels of serotonin.

Health effects of low serotonin levels

Research suggests that low serotonin levels are linked to many negative health conditions, including:

  • Anxiety and depression. People who experience frequent anxiety are often found to have low serotonin levels.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome. More than 90 percent of our serotonin is found in the gut, and people with IBS often do not have enough serotonin for proper digestion.
  • Sleep disorders, including insomnia and poor sleep quality.
  • Undermethylation, which impacts chemical reactions that occur throughout the body. Undermethylation is related to a variation in the MTHFR gene and leads to low levels of the compound SAM-e, which is involved in the production of several hormones and neurotransmitters. Roughly 15 to 20 percent of individuals with undermethylation show signs of depression and have low serotonin levels.

What causes low serotonin levels?

Certain nutritional deficiencies can impact serotonin levels, as can certain medications. Because vitamin B6 helps the body make serotonin and other neurotransmitters, vitamin B6 deficiencies can contribute to low serotonin levels. B6 deficiencies are uncommon, but sometimes occur in children and the elderly. A genetic variant in the NBPF3 gene is also associated with low levels of vitamin B6, possibly causing the vitamin to clear from the bloodstream faster than normal. Individuals with this genetic variant are advised to optimize their intake of foods rich in B6, such as beans, whole grains, meat, fish, and eggs.

Serotonin is created from an amino acid known as tryptophan, so low levels of so low levels of tryptophan in your diet can in turn lead to low serotonin levels. You’ve probably heard of tryptophan: it’s often blamed for the drowsiness you experience after eating Thanksgiving dinner. The body can’t produce its own tryptophan, so it must be obtained from diet. While it’s true that tryptophan can make you sleepy, it’s a myth that turkey contains higher levels than other sources of protein.

How diet influences serotonin levels

While you can’t obtain serotonin directly from your diet, you can eat foods that are rich in tryptophan, which will allow the body to create more serotonin. Tryptophan is found in most protein-based foods, including red meat, eggs, milk, yogurt, fish, and poultry, as well as chocolate, almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, tofu, and pineapple.

Eating foods rich in tryptophan, however, doesn’t immediately increase serotonin levels. All of the amino acids compete to get transported to the brain, and tryptophan is the least abundant of them all, meaning it often gets pushed aside. Mixing tryptophan-rich foods with carbs may help with tryptophan uptake. Carbs cause an increase in insulin, which diverts other amino acids into the muscles, allowing tryptophan to be transported to the brain.

Other factors that help increase serotonin levels

These additional lifestyle factors may also help boost serotonin levels and serotonin performance:

  • Get more sun. Low levels of vitamin D are linked to slower production of serotonin in the brain. In colder months, most people can benefit from a vitamin D supplement, especially people with a genetic variant that causes a reduced ability to transport vitamin D within the body.
  • Get adequate levels of omega-3s, which help serotonin work better. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in salmon and other fatty fish, walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, and hemp seeds. You can also take a fish oil supplement.
  • Exercise. Some studies suggest that exercise can help boost low levels of serotonin. Even gentle forms of exercise such as walking can improve mood.
  • Manage stress, which can interfere with serotonin levels. Adopt stress management techniques such as yoga and meditation. Studies also suggest that massage can increase serotonin by 28 percent.
  • Support healthy gut bacteria. Gut health is directly related to mental health, and research shows that healthy levels of gut bacteria influence serotonin levels. Take steps to maintain healthy digestion and consider taking a probiotic.

You can find out if you have genetic variants that increase your risk of certain nutritional deficiencies by ordering your genetic report from Vivaliti DNA. Your genetic report from Vivaliti DNA analyzes 80 different genetic markers related to how your body responds to physical activity, how you absorb nutrients, and whether you have an increased risk of certain health conditions. Download a sample DNA report to discover everything you get with Vivaliti DNA.