Serotonin levels in the brain are responsible for regulating mood, sleep and appetite, as well as a number of other important brain functions. When serotonin levels fall too low, the result can be depression and anxiety. Low serotonin levels have been implicated in a number of depressive and anxiety disorders, including bipolar disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. However, adding more essential fatty acids to your diet can help raise serotonin levels; here’s why.
Serotonin’s Role in the Brain
Serotonin is a vital neurotransmitter that fills a number of roles in the brain. You need adequate serotonin levels in order to learn, remember and enjoy feelings of pleasure, calmness and happiness. Serotonin affects appetite and muscle movement and it helps you fall deeply asleep at night. When serotonin levels fall too low, the result can be a number of symptoms, including lack of focus, irritability, insomnia and sexual dysfunction; in severe cases, serotonin deficiency can lead to depression and anxiety.
How Your Brain Makes Serotonin
You don’t get serotonin from your diet; your brain makes it from essential fatty acids and vitamins that you eat. Your brain uses tryptophan, an essential amino acid found in red meat and poultry, oily fish, nuts, seeds, bananas and plums, to make serotonin. Your brain also needs vitamins B and C as well as magnesium and calcium to produce serotonin.
Increasing Serotonin Levels through Diet
You can increase levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in your own brain by eating a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 essential fatty acids are high in tryptophan, an essential amino acid that your body can’t make by itself. You can get more tryptophan into your diet by eating any of the following foods:
- Oily fish, like salmon and halibut
- Sunflower and sesame seeds
- Brown rice
It can be difficult to significantly raise dietary levels of omega-3 fatty acids by changing your diet. However, you can easily add more omega-3 fatty acids and tryptophan to your diet by using a fish oil supplement. Choose a fish oil supplement that’s made from farmed fish, since they won’t contain dangerous levels of mercury and pollutants. Pharmaceutical grade fish oil supplements (which are used to treat problems related to heart disease) contain higher concentrations of fish oil so you won’t have to take as many; avoid cod liver oil, as the high levels of vitamin A in this fish oil can quickly cause symptoms of toxicity.
Doctors recommend taking a normal dose (about one gram) of fish oil per day to increase serotonin levels; if you’ve been diagnosed with a depressive or anxiety disorder, consult your physician, as he may recommend a higher dose.
Eating complex carbohydrates with your omega-3s can help your brain absorb more tryptophan. When you eat carbs, your body produces insulin, which controls blood sugar levels. Insulin attaches itself to glucose molecules in your blood, but it also attaches itself to many of the amino acids competing with tryptophan for access to the brain through the brain blood barrier. When you eat carbs, the insulin your pancreas clears other amino acids out of the bloodstream, allowing more tryptophan to cross the brain blood barrier.