As winter approaches, have you been thinking about how to maintain your mental health and keep your mood up?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and the “winter blues”, its milder cousin, are growing concerns for about 15% of Canadians. Plus, many more people deal with various mood disorders regularly. While some of these conditions are best treated with medications, others can be attributed to low serotonin levels in the body.
Read on to discover how serotonin affects us, what may happen if we don’t have enough, and what natural things we can try to keep our levels up.
But first, what is serotonin?
Serotonin is one of the neurotransmitters involved in mental health. It is essential for our memory, stress response, and processing of emotions. It’s often referred to as the “Happy Hormone” due to its role in promoting positive feelings and prosocial behaviour.
In addition to elevating our mood, serotonin can also help us sleep well by regulating our circadian rhythm. As the sun goes down each evening, serotonin is naturally converted into melatonin in our bodies. You may have heard about melatonin as a supplement people use to help them sleep when their body doesn’t produce enough. However, it’s common to lack melatonin if there is not enough serotonin present in the first place.
But serotonin does more than boost mood and aid in sleep. It also helps regulate our appetite, enables us to learn more quickly, and helps us consolidate new memories.
If serotonin levels are too low, we might:
- Feel low or have a depressed mood;
- Feel anxious;
- Become irritable or anger easily;
- Have sleep issues or feel constantly fatigued;
- Feel impulsive;
- Have a decreased appetite;
- Experience nausea or digestive issues; or
- Crave sweets or simple sugars.
So, if you get a little down over the winter months, find yourself craving sugars or carbohydrates, are tired all the time, and just feel “blah”, then you may want to consider low serotonin levels as a potential cause.
Luckily, there are several natural ways to increase serotonin levels to elevate your mood. The following are some of the things you should consider when trying to improve your serotonin levels naturally.
- Eat more protein. Your body uses an amino acid named tryptophan as a precursor during the production of serotonin. One of the best ways to increase the level of this amino acid in your body is by ingesting more proteins, especially quality animal proteins. Foods like pasture-raised chicken, turkey, eggs, and wild-caught fish contain good amounts of tryptophan. Without enough, serotonin production may be limited.
- Get more natural sunlight. Have you ever wondered why rates of depression spike during the cold and dark months of winter? This increased incidence of depression can be attributed, in part, to a lack of sunlight during this time of year. Why? The creation of serotonin is triggered by sunlight. So spending some time in the bright sunlight can increase serotonin production substantially. Even if it’s a little cloudy, spending time outside will provide you with more sun exposure than you think—and far more exposure than you’ll get sitting inside.
- Supplement with vitamin D. This goes along with the suggestion of spending more time outside. Sunlight activates the production of vitamin D. In turn, vitamin D activates the production of serotonin. Supplementing with vitamin D3 can ensure enough of it is present to create serotonin and help us maintain stable moods.
- Get moving. Sitting on the couch day in and day out can do a number on your body. Not only can a sedentary lifestyle cause health problems, but it can also cause your serotonin levels to bottom out. The best way to combat this is to start exercising. Get in some cardio daily. Not only is it good for your heart health, but it’s also good for increasing serotonin production. Start slowly, then ramp up the intensity of your training. Pushing your body during workouts can be extremely beneficial.
- Avoid zero-carb diets. For some people, a no- or low-carb diet can be very beneficial. However, if you struggle with low serotonin levels, a no-carb diet may do more harm than good! The insulin spike that occurs when eating carbs helps move amino acids into the blood, including tryptophan. In addition, carbs are required to move tryptophan past the blood-brain barrier into the brain where it can be converted into serotonin.
Note: If you struggle with depression and are currently avoiding carbohydrates, you may want to reconsider. Once you iron out your serotonin issues, you can always go back on this type of diet if you wish.
- Use your sense of smell. For years, people have used essential oils for a variety of purposes. Often, these oils are used in a diffuser designed to unlock their fragrance. Use scented oils like lemon or lavender to increase serotonin production in the body, as the sense of smell can help prompt your brain to release both dopamine and serotonin.
- Add turmeric to your plate. The turmeric found in dishes like curry can be used as an anti-depressant in small doses. Turmeric increases serotonin levels and can help you with severe mood swings. It also has the added benefit of reducing brain inflammation. So consider adding turmeric to your dishes and getting creative with the spices in your kitchen; some can actually benefit your mental well-being.
- Be grateful. It’s always good practice to focus on the positives in your life, and now, the research exists to back this up. All thoughts release chemicals in the brain. Negative thoughts tend to produce more negative thoughts, while positive thoughts release positive chemicals in the brain like serotonin. So, expressing gratitude about the good in your life or simply thinking about something that makes you feel good can help increase serotonin in your brain.
Bottom Line: Serotonin levels can play a significant role in how we feel and act each day. If levels are low, our mood will likely be as well. Luckily, there are several safe and natural ways to boost serotonin levels in order to beat the winter blues and elevate our mood naturally!