Serotonin is a neurochemical that plays so many different roles in your body that it’s really tough to nail down its function precisely. Your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which primarily controls your personality and executive functioning, relies heavily on serotonin.
Your overall mood is greatly influenced by this neurochemical and like Goldilocks, your serotonin need to be just right. Studies have connected low levels with physical and mental problems, and too much can be dangerous, leading to a condition known as serotonin syndrome.
Serotonin’s Role in Depression
Science has determined that higher levels of serotonin are associated with positive moods and decreased levels correlate with lower moods. One theory, still widely believed, blames depression on too little serotonin.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
Research supports the idea that serotonin plays a role, not only in the treatment of depression but also in a person’s susceptibility to depression, but the connection isn’t fully understood. One popular type of antidepressant, Serotonin-Specific Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), alters the brain’s serotonin system by binding to the transporter, a molecule responsible for sucking serotonin out of the synaptic gap between neurons. This action allows the neurochemical to stay in the synapse longer, which was once thought to be a universal cure for depression.
However, if that were true, SSRIs would work for everyone, but they don’t. Some people don’t respond to SSRIs, but have success with medications that act on other neurochemical systems, for example: dopamine, oxytocin, GABA, melatonin, endorphins, endocannaboids.
It used to be believed that depression was due to a deficiency of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. Today, we know that depression is a complex illness with a basis in brain neurochemicals and thought patterns with many other contributing factors such as life events, environment, biochemicals, and heredity.
Serotonin’s Role in Willpower and Habits
You can also think of serotonin as the confidence neurochemical, flowing freely when you feel significant or important. You’re enjoying the effects of it when you feel respected by others, and your brain will seek more of the same by repeating behaviors that triggered its release in your past. The respect you got in your youth carved neural pathways in your brain telling it how to get respect (and serotonin) today.
Sometimes, that can drive people to seek attention in not-so-healthy ways. The solution isn’t to try to rid yourself of your innate urge for status, because your brain needs the serotonin. Instead, you can develop your belief in your own worth, focus on your wins, and find other ways to get the serotonin you need.
Often, when we try to embark on a new habit or goal and falter after only a few steps, we blame ourselves for not having enough willpower. Having stick-to-it tenaciousness isn’t just a matter of willpower. It depends on how well your prefrontal cortex is paying attention and whether it has enough serotonin. With an ample supply, your brain can override the habitual, impulsive striatum — which is always going to vote for you to keep doing what you’ve been doing.
If you try to implement a new habit, you will need to change your brain to support the new routine. If you give up after a slip-up, you’re training your brain to give up as well. The key to altering a habit comes in that moment when you realize that you didn’t follow through with the old pattern. In that instant, if you’ll make the effort to remind yourself of your goal and bask in your accomplishment - even just a little, you’ll enhance serotonin activity and reinforce the new, desired behavior in your brain.
Unfortunately, you don’t have an endless supply of serotonin. Each time you successfully inhibit an impulse, it makes it harder to overrule subsequent impulses because your serotonin reserve is smaller. In The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, Alex Korb, PhD, explains it like this:
Resisting impulses is like fighting an army of zombies with a limited number of bullets. Eventually you’ll run out.
To remedy this, you can create better habits which don’t rely on the power of your prefrontal cortex to overpower the striatum and ramp up your serotonin activity.
How to Naturally Increase Your Serotonin Supply
Think Happy Thoughts
Seriously. It may seem too simple, but studies show that positive self-reflection, recalling happy memories, and affirmative thoughts boost serotonin activity in your prefrontal cortex. Reflecting on past significant achievements allows your brain to re-live the experience. In your brain, there’s not much difference between real and imagined, and simply remembering a success produces serotonin. For this reason, gratitude and visualization practices alter your brain for the better too.
Soak in Some Sunlight
The ultraviolet rays in sunlight absorbed through your skin, promote vitamin D and serotonin production. Research shows serotonin turnover increases with the amount of sunlight and even the brightness. Go outside on your lunch hour, go for a walk, or (my personal favorite) take a nap in the sun.
Get a Massage
Studies show that getting a massage can boost serotonin levels by as much as 30 percent. A massage also decreases stress hormones and raises dopamine and oxytocin levels, which is all good for your mental health, and it just feels wonderful!
Move Your Body
Science confirms that exercise increases serotonin production and release. Movement ups the firing rates of existing serotonin neurons, which then results in increased release and synthesis of serotonin. Any movement: vacuuming, dancing, yoga, walking, will benefit your brain.
Psychotherapy Strengthens Serotonin
A Finnish study found that psychotherapy for depression increased the number of serotonin receptors in the prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain and significantly boosted the number of serotonin transporter molecules in some people.
The Turkey and Banana Myth
There is a lot of erroneous information circulating about foods increasing serotonin levels. The article, “How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs,” in The Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience explains:
The idea, common in popular culture, that a high-protein food such as turkey will raise brain tryptophan and serotonin is, unfortunately, false. Another popular myth that is widespread on the Internet is that bananas improve mood because of their serotonin content. Although it is true that bananas contain serotonin, it does not cross the blood–brain barrier.
Research has determined that while purified tryptophan stimulates serotonin production, foods containing tryptophan do not.