How to boost those 'happiness hormones'

Along with eating the right kinds of food, there are other things that can help us feel better when done regularly. Limiting alcohol, reducing screentime, spending quality time with friends and family, sunlight, exercising and getting enough sleep. Phew! That is some list! And while these read like a basic list, they are some of the hardest things that people struggle with daily to achieve! I can only claim to help you with one of these in the form of nutrition but that said, it should never to be underestimated… we are what we eat after all! Every mouthful of food we eat is put to use by our bodies, so why not give it the best options to choose from. 

When it comes to boosting our mood and supporting sleep, there are some great food options to support the body and brain. The brain produces a hormone called serotonin (the feel-good hormone) which is involved in mood and sleep but also plays a key role in digestion, bone health, blood clotting and even sexual desire. When people are treated by their doctors for conditions like depression and anxiety, they tend to look to drugs like SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) to try to increase the amount of serotonin available to the body. If we have a deficiency, we may feel sad, depressed, have low energy, experience negative thoughts, feel tense and irritable, crave sweet foods and loose interest in sex. That list is surely enough to make anyone sit up and listen!

Serotonin is sometimes called our ‘satisfaction or calm’ brain chemical because, in addition to giving us a sense of well-being, if levels are normal, then we don’t feel the need to overeat sugary and refined carbohydrate foods which give us a short-term serotonin boost, at the expense of a sharp drop-off soon after. We make serotonin from an amino acid (a protein building block) called tryptophan. By eating tryptophan-rich foods we can naturally boost our levels of serotonin. 

Here are some sources: 

Turkey, chicken, fish, pheasant, cottage cheese, bananas, eggs, nuts, wheat germ, avocados, milk, cheese and the legumes (beans, peas, pulses, soya), and there are also smaller amounts in breads, cereals, potatoes and rice. 

For best absorption combine these foods with carbohydrate such as brown rice, whole-wheat bread, porridge oats and jacket potatoes. Make sure you regularly consume essential fatty acid rich foods, such as oily fish, fish oil supplements, cold-pressed flaxseed oil, flaxseed, walnuts, hemp seeds and pumpkin seeds for brain health. 

Tryptophan-rich snacks in the evening can be helpful for a good night’s sleep as it helps to produce serotonin which is converted into melatonin, our sleep hormone. These bedtime snacks work best if they are eaten at least 30 minutes prior to bed. 

Tryptophan-Rich Snacks 

  • 1 cup of soya milk, 1-2 tsp of almond butter and banana. Blend and have as a smoothie (you can alternate with rice or skimmed milk if you wish and with other nut butters especially organic peanut butter or tahini/sesame seed spread) 
  • Oats, soya milk and 4-5 almond nuts, (small bowl, best if made into a porridge) 
  • 2 oatcakes or 2 rice cakes with a little (1-2 tsp) cottage cheese or organic peanut butter and half a banana 
  • 6-8 oz low-fat yoghurt with some flaked almonds, sliced apple and granola flakes/oat flakes
  • 6-8 oz container of non-fat, flavoured yoghurt (these can be soya or other yoghurts) topped with 2 tablespoons low-fat granola cereal 
  • 1 small bowl of popcorn sprinkled with some parmesan cheese 
  • One cup healthy cereal with skim milk/soya milk/almond milk 
  • Avocado, tomato and rice cake/oat cake or avocado, cottage cheese and oat/rice cake 

Tryptophan-Rich Evening Meals 

  • Baked potato with cottage cheese and tuna salad 
  • Chicken/turkey breast, baked potato and vegetables especially green beans 
  • Wholemeal/whole-wheat pasta with bean, tofu or lean meat sauce 
  • Salmon fillet, quinoa and lentil, green salad and yoghurt dressing. 
  • Tofu, wholewheat/buckwheat noodles and greens topped with a peanut, lime juice, coriander dressing 

Recommended Supplements to help with our mood: 

Disclaimer: Please note that if you are already taking anti-depressant medication, you should not take the supplements marked with an *. Always speak to your doctor if you are suffering with low mood and always before taking any supplements marked with an * below.

St John’s Wort or Hypericum perforatum is a plant that has been used as part of traditional medicine in Europe as far back as the ancient Greeks. It is said that the name refers to St. John the Baptist as the flower blooms around his birthday in June. It is mostly used nowadays to support mild depression symptoms. Studies show that it appears to be as effective as standard anti-depressant medication for short-term mild to moderate cases of 12 weeks, Not suitable for children.

This may suprise some people but our B-Vitamins play a huge role in supporting our brain function and therefore our mood. They are required to produce our neurotransmltters serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. Many people with depression feel much better where these neurotransmitters are better balanced. Vegans and Vegetarians will know about the importance of Vitamin B12 and the risks of deficiency when meat is excluded from the diet. Supplementing B12 alone or a good B complex is always recommended in theses cases. Lower levels of these vitamins have been shown to be associated with a higher risk of developing depression.

5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is a chemical that the body makes from the amino acid tryptophan. After this takes place, it is then converted into our happy hormone serotonin. 5-HTP supplements can help to raise serotonin levels in the brain. We now know that serotonin helps to regulate our mood and behaviour, so this supplement (made from the seeds of the African plant Griffonia simplicifolia) may have a positive impact on our mood and sleep. We cannot eat 5-HTP as it is not found in foods, and eating sources of tryptophan doesn't seem to increase our levels very much. This supplement is used today to support cases of mild to moderate depression, fibromyalgia, insomnia, and migraine. Studies show that it appears to be as effective as some anti-depressant medication for mild to moderate cases. Not suitable for children.

This beauty of a supplement I would recommend for everyone's general health and not only to boost your mood. Omega 3 fats are 'essential fatty acids' which means you cannot make them yourself and must be consumed in food form. There are two types of omega 3 fats called EPA and DHA that are found in fish, and ALA which is found mainly in vegetable oils and seeds. We get plenty of ALA in the Western Diet but not so much of the others. It is recommended that the EPA content of the supplement should be at least 1000mg. Read my blog on Omegas for a more in depth disussion on theses fats.

SAMe (S-adenosyl-L-methionine) is a compound that is found naturally in the body after the breakdown of the amino acid methionine. It is important here as it helps to produce and regulate hormones. It is not recommended to take this if you are already taking St. John's Wort as it can cause serotonin syndrome where your serotonin levels are too high which can be very dangerous. SAMe can be taken in supplement form to support depression and even osteoarthritis symptoms.


Disclosure: I am a professional Nutritional Therapist who may receive compensation from companies whose products I review. I am independently owned and the well-researched opinions expressed here are my own.