Serotonin: Vital Brain Chemical Affects Both Mood and Cognition

Seeking serotonin help? Here’s how you can naturally increase levels of this powerful neurotransmitter to boost mental acuity and lift depression.


Getting regular exercise and making sure you can soak in some sunshine are easy ways to make sure your serotonin level maintains a healthy balance.

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The importance of the neurotransmitter serotonin in affecting mood has been widely acknowledged in numerous studies linking low brain levels of this key chemical with depression, anxiety, and irritability. Now, scientists are reporting another significant role the neurotransmitter plays in the brain—that of promoting memory and cognition.

Inadequate brain levels of serotonin (also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine, or 5-HT) may be responsible for declines in cognitive function associated with aging, as well as the development of certain psychiatric disorders and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease (AD), according to recent data. (See “Serotonin Deficiency Symptoms That You Can Identify Yourself.”)

Serotonin Research Details

The research, published online in May 2016 in Translational Neuroscience, is a review of 189 studies dealing with serotonin’s role in cognition. Researchers concluded that developing drugs that reverse cognitive deficits by acting on serotonin targets in the brain “would result in the substantial improvement of the quality of life of patients with age-related cognitive impairments and other diseases with a significant component of memory dysfunction, such as AD… .”

“Although researchers have not definitively proven a cause-and-effect relationship between low brain levels of serotonin and problems with mood and cognition, they have found significant links between an insufficiency of the neurotransmitter and these problems,” says David Mischoulon, MD, PhD, Director of Research and Alternative Remedy Studies at MGH’s Depression Clinical and Research Program. “The data suggest that to function optimally, people need adequate brain levels of this chemical, which interacts with brain cells and stimulates receptors that have to do with memory and mood. Fortunately, research indicates that there are a number of actions people can take to help boost brain levels of serotonin.”



According to Dr. David Mischoulon of Research and Alternative Remedy Studies at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Depression Clinical and Research Program, the following supplements have been associated in research with an increase in serotonin among people whose levels are low:

  • Niacin (vitamin B3)
  • Pyridoxine (vitamin B6)
  • Folate (vitamin B9) and methylfolate
  • 5-hydroxy-troptophan (serotonin precursor)
  • St. John’s wort
  • S-adenosyl methionine (SAMe)

Boosting Serotonin

Scientists have identified a number of natural ways to increase serotonin levels. Here are five easy-to-adopt strategies.

  1. Exercise. Vigorous aerobic exercise delivers a double benefit. It raises brain levels of a growth factor called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which stimulates serotonin production. It also enables a precursor to serotonin, tryptophan, to enter the brain in larger amounts, where it promotes the manufacture of more serotonin. The benefits of exercise last long after your workout, elevating mood and sharpening your brain.
  2. Meditation. Spending about 20 minutes a day in peaceful meditation—during which time you attempt to relax fully, concentrate on your breathing, and empty your mind of all thoughts and feelings—has been shown in multiple studies to increase brain serotonin levels.
  3. Exposure to sunlight. Exposure to sunlight through the retina of the eye sets off positive hormonal reactions that lead to increases in serotonin. Sunlight also prompts the production of serotonin in human skin, increasing overall levels of the neurotransmitter. So significant is sunlight’s effect on the brain that too little exposure to sunlight—which may occur, for example, in many northern climes in winter—has been linked with a form of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is often addressed with daily full-spectrum light therapy provided by lamps capable of delivering brightness comparable to that of full daylight.
  4. Diet. Although up to 95 percent of the body’s serotonin is manufactured in the gut, much of this supply does not reach the brain. Still, what you eat appears to have a significant effect on brain serotonin levels. For example, certain gut bacteria appear to help increase brain levels of serotonin. Probiotic foods that supply these bacteria include pickles, sauerkraut, yogurt with active cultures, and kefir. Another food—the spice turmeric, which contains curcumin—has been shown to increase the concentration and prolong the activity of serotonin in the brain. Foods containing high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, such as cold-water fish, flaxseed oil, and walnuts, are also thought to boost serotonin levels. (Alcohol, in constrast, is known to reduce serotonin levels.)
  5. Mental attitude. Research suggests that working to replace negative thoughts and reactions with more positive thoughts and reactions helps boost the production of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin levels also appear to rise if you make an effort to adopt more self-confident body postures and facial expressions.


Do you tend to struggle with depression, find yourself unable to sleep at night, or contend with feelings of low self-esteem? These are all symptoms of serotonin deficiency. There are others, too, that you may be able to self-diagnose. Our post “Serotonin Deficiency Symptoms That You Can Identify Yourself” may bring things into focus for you; click here to read about signs may be telling you that you need a boost in serotonin.

We also tell you, in another post, how to get a safe serotonin boost. See “4 Serotonin Supplements to Treat Depression, Anxiety, and Insomnia Yourself.”

See also our posts “Serotonin Deficiency: Is This Really a Cause of Depression?” and Serotonin Deficiency: A Root Cause of Your Depression Symptoms?

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Susan Jimison Vitek

Susan Jimison Vitek served as Executive Editor of Mind, Mood, & Memory, a monthly publication sponsored by Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston that focuses on the latest developments in mental … Read More

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  • I’m not a researcher but have done a great deal of research about serotonin for my desperate need to improve sleep. Age 93 I was put on the benzo drug Nitrazepam 55 years ago to overcome sleep problems caused by back pain. These drugs make one not just dependent on them but, in time lose their effect. Worse, they increase the need for more. With my sleep close to deprivation level I desperately needed to find a non-drug aid. Amitriptyline was suggested which I tried twice but it didn’t agree with me, and it’s still a drug that many people taking it are trying to come off.
    In my research I was shocked to discover that some elderly people are being diagnosed as dementia or pre-dementia when in fact they were simply low in brain serotonin. This particular amino acid is key among the other neurotransmitter amino acids by not only regulating memory, mood, appetite and many other vital functions but it also collaborates with and to some extent helps regulate the functions of the other neurotransmitters, so its a key player in many ways.
    One way of supplementing serotonin is 5-HTP, which for me offered the chance of better sleep. It’s been around for decades and with no evidence of serious side effects (nausea in some people, but even that subsided) I decided to try it 8 weeks ago. From day one my sleep has gradually risen from 2-3 hours to currently 6-7 hours, waking refreshed, alert. Unexpectedly I also feel less depressed, more confident and positive. But I’ve gone beyond even those benefits, with greatly improved sleep allowing me to now very gradually taper off my Nitrazepam dosage by tiny amounts. I use jewellers scales to remove 5 mgs of tablet each week. This effectively only removes .05 mgs of Nitrazepam, too little for the brain to notice, so no withdrawal effects. It will take all of 6 to 8 months to free myself of the wretched drug but I am already 20% towards my target.
    I can’t prove that I was deficient in brain serotonin but my personal experience is proving that I was. Which begs my important question – why isn’t the supplementation with 5-HTP being given more research, more publicity. I have spent hours reading forums of people telling of their wretched states of mind being prescribed cocktails of drugs by the millions. Depression, stress, anxiety, insomnia figure highly in their daily struggles. I’m not suggesting that 5-HTP will solve all their problems but for many, like me that have tried it if only out of desperation, it has proved more than a boon for just sleep. A sharper mind – which I really need, living alone and looking after myself, and I also still drive. More confidence, better mood, and even allowing me to withdraw after 55 years of drug dependence.
    If, as I suspect, and reliable reports have indicated, there are people seeming to be heading towards dementia when in fact due to the ageing process they are simply serotonin deficient, there surely is a case for more serious research and trials into the use of 5-HTP, if only to slow down this terrible disease? It’s being bought online and OTC by millions with huge numbers giving it their approval. But it’s still not medically approved, in fact my GP refused to even discuss it with me when I went for advice, because it wasn’t medically approved. How’s that for official prejudice?

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