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Boosting serotonin with food and supplements: what you need to know

Article at a Glance
  • Serotonin is a feel-good neurotransmitter that regulates, sleep, mood and sex drive, among other things.
  • Food choices can influence serotonin levels, with meals higher in carbohydrates showing greatest efficacy in raising serotonin levels, and high-protein diets suppressing serotonin production.
  • L-tryptophan is the amino acid precursor to serotonin; however, levels of L-tryptophan in the blood don’t have as much of an impact on serotonin levels as insulin levels do. It is insulin that “clears the playing field” of amino acids, such as tyrosine, that compete with serotonin for uptake into the brain, allowing for L-tryptophan to be used by the brain.
  • Serotonin-boosting supplements, like 5-HTP, work to increase serotonin, but they work too well, often causing a decrease in other important neurotransmitters such as dopamine.
Genes Mentioned

We’ve all heard of serotonin, the “feel good” neurotransmitter that regulates sleep, mood, and sex drive. And because of its role in making us feel good, serotonin maintains a coveted place in the popular culture, especially in the supplement industry. People take supplement pills like 5-HTP to boost serotonin levels, but is this safe?

In this post, we will dive into the basics of how our bodies make serotonin, and discuss safe strategies for boosting serotonin that don’t come at the expense of other neurotransmitters like dopamine.

How the body makes serotonin

Aaron is going to weigh in at the end of the post with a more technical rundown, but from 10,000 feet, it’s important to know that the body uses the amino acid L-tryptophan as the precursor to serotonin.

You may be thinking, yes, I know tryptophan, it’s in turkey. Turkey makes serotonin, that’s why I get so sleepy on Thanksgiving, right?

Well, not exactly.

The interesting thing about L-tryptophan is that it does a poor job of competing with other amino acids for uptake into the brain, where it is then ultimately used to make serotonin.

As it turns out, our friends at the military have studied this.

For those of you who want to play along at home, I will be citing heavily from this paper written by Richard Wurtman: Effects of Nutrients on Neurotransmitter Release, which was commissioned by the Government to research how nutrition could play a role in affecting the performance of our military men and women.

High-protein meals lower serotonin

So, again, we would assume that high protein meals, that contain greater amounts of tryptophan, would cause the greatest spike in serotonin levels, but studies show just the opposite is true.

Eating a whole bunch of turkey causes serum levels of tryptophan in the blood to rise, but tryptophan circulating in the blood isn’t usable by the brain to make serotonin.

How is this possible?

Early analysis in rat models revealed that it’s not the plasma tryptophan that is the issue for serotonin production, the issue is the ratio of tryptophan to other “competitive” amino acids fighting for space in the brain.

Studies in rats showed that eating a meal of carbohydrates and fat, but no protein, increased serotonin, whereas a protein rich meal decreased serotonin. Interestingly, when the experiment was performed in humans, the meal of fat and carbs did not increase serum tryptophan, but it did increase serotonin (which means that brain tryptophan was increased by the fat and carbs).

The role of insulin in serotonin production

In his papers, Wurtman admits that he and his colleagues were also surprised to learn that high carb meals boost serotonin. The mechanism seems to be insulin. Carbohydrate rich meals were shown to increase tryptophan levels in the brain (not in the blood), because levels of most other competing amino acids are lowered when our blood sugar spikes.

Essentially, researchers are saying that, yes, like most amino acids, tryptophan levels in the blood go down with insulin spikes, but they compensate by binding to other molecules, which makes them usable by the brain to make serotonin. In essence, tryptophan does a poor job of competing against it’s amino acid brothers and sisters, and it needs a clear playing field to get to the brain to make serotonin.

Insulin is what clears the playing field.

Insulin causes nonesterified fatty acid molecules to dissociate from albumin and to enter adipocytes. This dissociation increases the protein’s capacity to bind circulating tryptophan; hence, whatever reduction insulin causes in free plasma tryptophan levels is compensated for by a rise in the tryptophan bound to albumin, yielding no net change in total plasma tryptophan levels in humans.

So, the lesson here is amino acids compete for binding sites in the brain. Tryptophan does a bad job of competing against other amino acids, and therefore uses insulin to get in the brain where it needs to be to make our feel good friend serotonin. When plasma levels of other amino acids fall, the ability of tryptophan to get into the brain increases.

Again, to quote Wurtman:

Since all dietary proteins are considerably richer in the other Long neutral amino acids (LNAAs) than in tryptophan (only 1.0–1.5 percent of most proteins), consumption of a protein-rich meal decreases the plasma/tryptophan ratio (the ratio of the plasma tryptophan concentration to the summed concentrations of its major circulating competitors for brain uptake, principally, tyrosine; phenylalanine; the branched-chain amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine; and methionine). This, in turn, decreases tryptophan’s transport into the brain and slows its conversion to serotonin.

Serotonin and oatmeal

Decrease in competing amino acids that cause greater tryptophan uptake in the brain could also be part of the reason people become so addicted to oatmeal in the mornings. The spike in insulin caused by eating oatmeal, and for some people fruit or brown sugar as well, clears the field of the tyrosines of the world, leaving tryptophan free to make serotonin.

For more, see: Why are carbohydrates addictive? Because they make us feel good, literally

What supplements increase serotonin?

As it pertains to food, we’ve learned that foods that are highest in tryptophan are not necessarily the ones that will increase uptake of serotonin to the brain and ultimately serotonin levels. Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, carbohydrate rich meals actually help the body make serotonin.

So, what about dietary supplements?

There seems to be a never ending list of nootropics out there that make grand claims about boosting mood and cognitive ability. Which of these supplements increase serotonin? Which will lower it? Are they safe?

Let’s dig in and find out.

Serotonin supplements on Amazon

SupplementBrandToo much/adequateNotes
5-HTPSuperior Source 5-HTPPotential for too muchCan have very unpleasant side effects depending on dosage, may affect other neurotransmitters
SAM-ePure Encapsulations SAM-eToo muchMay interact with other drugs or supplements aiming to also boost serotonin
Saint John's WortPure Encapsulations St. John's WortToo muchSide effects, plus potential to dangerously increase serotonin if taken with other serotonin boosters
Low-dose Vitamin B6Solgar Vitamin B6AdequateLow levels of B6 associated with depression, but high levels associated with nerve damage
Vitamin DPure Encapsulations Vitamin D3AdequateVitamin D deficiency is linked to low levels of serotonin and depression
Omega-3 fatty acidsNordic Naturals Ultimate OmegaAdequateDHA may promote serotonin receptor activity, while EPA promotes serotonin release; not all see a positive effect
TheanineJarrow Formulas GABA SootheAdequateLinked to serotonin and dopamine levels, but unsure how L-theanine induces effect

Serotonin Supplements We Don’t Like

This conversation begins with 5-HTP, as that is the supplement most would mention when talk of boosting serotonin comes up.

* The science grade for these nutrients reflects how well they work, as you’ll see they often work well… too well in some cases which is where our issues with them arise.*

5-HTP (potential for too much serotonin)

Science Grade

*

Just as there are multiple steps in converting folate into methylfolate, the form of folate the body can readily use, tryptophan undergoes a conversion process on its way to becoming serotonin.

As part of that process, L-tryptophan becomes 5-HTP.

5-HTP is especially popular as a serotonin boosting supplement, as there are safety concerns surrounding taking L-tryptophan as a supplement directly, and many studies looking at L-tryptophan supplementation show only middling results, presumably because amino acid balancing was not taken into account. (R) And, in light of Wurtman’s work, I find the concept of a tryptophan supplement odd to begin with as it’s not the serum tryptophan, but the neutralization of more cognitively bioavailable amino acids that seems to dictate serotonin levels.

Concerns About 5-HTP Side Effects

When I have taken 5-HTP, I have experienced unpleasant side effects unless I get the dose nailed perfectly, and the ideal dose for me is very small – probably 2-3mg max. With most supplements on the market delivering 100mg doses, I have always stayed away from 5-HTP as it feels like performing surgery with a chain saw. Because most of the 5-HTP products on the market offer large doses, when I have used 5-HTP, I go with a product made by Superior Source, which is microlingual, meaning it easily dissolves under the tongue. The Superior Source 5-HTP tablets give you 50mg of 5-HTP, but the reason I like them is they are easily broken apart, making a 5mg dose easy to obtain without wasting an entire pill. The downside is they aren’t Vegan, which will be a deal breaker for some of our readers. Having said that, the easy ability to take a conservative dose of 5-HTP is appealing. Neurotransmitter balance is a delicate thing and flooding the brain with serotonin could have an adverse impact on other neurotransmitters such as dopamine.

For this rather technical section of the piece, I am bringing in Aaron so I don’t get “too far out over my skis.”

Thanks John, I think the scientific consensus is with you on the use of both L-tryptophan and 5-HTP, see this strongly worded article for an example (R). The authors summarize the issue perfectly in their conclusion so I’ll just quote verbatim (emphasis mine):

5-HTP in the treatment of depression has languished for years. Intuitively, the potential is extraordinary, but from a practical level efficacy is no better than placebo. In review of the science, effective integration of 5-HTP into a patient management plan is much more complicated than simply giving some 5-HTP in order to have more serotonin throughout the system.

Administering serotonin or dopamine amino acid precursors should never involve administration of only one amino acid. Improperly balanced amino acid precursors are associated with decreased efficacy, increased side effects, and depletion of the nondominant system.

So, bottom line is that an amino acid precursor, like 5-HTP, may increase serotonin, but it does so at the expense of your other neurotransmitters. It’s an interesting paper, and I found this image particularly useful in understanding the neurotransmitter-amino acid balance, and some of the severe issues that can arise from 5-HTP supplementation, namely depletion of dopamine:

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Image from 5-HTP efficacy and contraindications, Hinz M et al, 2012.

Interestingly, the authors talk about an approach to achieve a balanced administration of 5-HTP using a technique called monoamine transporter optimization (MTO), which measures and balances serotonin and dopamine, giving optimized individual dosing targets.

I’ll admit this is a new technique to me and so I’m not sure how widely available it is as a test. Thing to remember here is that neurotransmitters, and the amino acids that make them, all act in concert. Flooding the system with one won’t give you the feeling you’re looking for, at least not for long.

SAM-e (too much serotonin)

Science Grade

*

S-Adenosyl-L-methionine (SAM-e) is another commonly used nutritional supplement, especially for those with SNPs in the MTHFR, COMT and other associated genes. Generally SAM-e has a pretty good safety profile with limited side-effects and numerous studies have demonstrated a positive effect for the treatment of depression. However there is some concern that due to its action SAM-e can interact with drugs and other supplements that are aiming to boost serotonin levels (R,R), promoting dangerously high serotonin levels (R,R).

This is due to its major function as a methyl group donor for the enzyme COMT. COMT uses these methyl groups to inactivate various neurotransmitters (see this post for pathway details – R,R), SNPs in which are thought to play a role in depression and cognitive issues (R). But SAM-e doesn’t just donate methyl groups for COMT to function, it also serves as a methyl donor for the formation of these very same neurotransmitters (R). Confusing huh? I think this multiple action, coupled with the wide variety of SNPs in genes which use SAM-e is why people report such varied responses to supplementation. I think once we get a better handle on the complex one carbon, methionine and wider meythlation cycles and how various SNPs can influence these we will have a much clearer idea of how people will respond to SAM-e.

For now, it’s important to note that the effects of SAM-e are likely to be widely varied. If you have decided to try a SAM-e supplement after consulting with a healthcare professional, Ortho Molecular makes a product that is worth trying. As a general rule, Ortho Molecular makes reliable products that are manufactured in an FDA audited facility.

Saint John’s Wort (too much serotonin)

Science Grade

*

St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is another commonly used serotonin booster and the mechanism for how it acts is actually really interesting, especially how it links in with tryptophan and 5-HTP.

As you can see in the image below tryptophan isn’t just converted by TPH into 5-HTP, there are also other enzymes which convert it down an alternative pathway tryptophan 2,3-dioxygenase or TDO, being the major driver.

St. John’s Wort functions by blocking TDO activity, which then forces more tryptophan to be processed by TPH (R). This action has been associated with several positive health benefits including its use as a cancer therepautic (R), and depression (R). Although the cancer angle is relatively novel and there is conflicting evidence about the use of St. John’s Wort in depression as well (R).

Image from ResearchGate.

Regardless of its effect it is a widely used supplement, but should people be concerned? As with SAM-e there is the potential to dangerously increase serotonin levels if taken in conjunction with other serotonin boosters, and several quite serious side effects have been described (R). Another one to approach with caution.

Serotonin supplements we DO like

So we’ve listed three we would recommend avoiding, or approaching with care. Are there any serotonin supplements that can have a beneficial effect without the side effects?

Low dose vitamin B6

Science Grade



Vitamin B6 is a key cofactor for the enzymes involved in converting tryptophan to 5-HTP and then on to serotonin. So it is no surprise that low levels have been associated with depression (R). While some benefit with supplementation has been observed, very long term studies (at least in women) did not show any long term benefit (R). This may be of particular benefit to those with SNPs in SHMT, CBS or CTH, all of which are involved in the mehtylation cycle, and all of which also use vitamin B6 as a cofactor.

When supplementing with B6, it is important to take very low doses, as high dose B6 has been associated with nerve damage.

Vitamin D

Science Grade



Vitamin D is another good candidate here. Known for its association with sunshine, and the fact that many of us are deficient. There are numerous studies linking this deficiency with low levels of serotonin and depression (R,R) and especially seasonal affective order (SAD), with strong evidence that supplementation may be beneficial (R) including this high powered systematic-review (R).

We even have some idea of a mechanism with both TPH1 and TPH2, genes which encode for enzymes which convert typtophan into 5-HTP (and then onto serotonin), containing sequences to which vitamin D can bind, and promote activity (R).

Omega 3 fatty acids

Science Grade



Omega-3 fatty acids are often described as brain food (but as John describes, not all fish oil is created equal). Omega-3 fatty acids in the brain are typically either docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) or eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and low blood concentrations of each have found to be reduced in patients with a variety of psychiatric issues (R,R). However, the evidence supporting supplementation as a target is somewhat less strong (R).

DHA is thought to promote the activity of the serotonin receptor in the brain, making it more receptive to serotonin signals and thus boosting mood (R). Whereas EPA is actually thought to promote serotonin release in the brain (R). This dual approach is supportive of the important role for omega-3 fatty acids in the serotonin pathway. What remains unclear is why not all individuals see a positive effect following supplementation given such a clear pathway exists.

Theanine

Science Grade



John has talked about his positive experience with L-theanine supplementation, including the positive effect it had on his mood. So it is unsurprising to see that a direct link between L-theanine and serotonin and dopamine levels exists (R). However, while a strong mechanism for the various vitamins and omega-3 oils has been described, we’re not currently sure exactly how L-theanine induces its effect.

Closing thoughts on serotonin supplements

I’ve written about protein cycling before in the context of the urea cycle, bot not as a strategy for boosting serotonin. In light of Wurtman’s research, it does seem that not only does taking a few days a week with no animal protein, and perhaps a starchier plate, give a break to the liver, it also offers an opportunity for tryptophan to reach the brain to make serotonin.

As far as serotonin supplements are concerned, the serotonin boosters we don’t like can work too well, flooding the brain with serotonin it can’t use and causing a corresponding imbalance in other neurotransmitters, such as dopamine.

John O'Connor

John O'Connor is the founder of Gene Food. He is passionate about nutrition, genetics, and wellness and uses this blog to publish self experiments as well as some of the research that the Gene Food team does internally to highlight stories of bio-individuality.

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6 Comments

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  1. John boy says:

    What is considered a low dose of vitamin B6 is it better to take it at night or in the day? Can I take 5-htp with L- theanine at night to help me sleep better or should I take Gaba with my L-theanine for better sleep?

  2. CJ says:

    As a non-academic vegetarian looking to safely and naturally balance my serotonin levels, I found your article very interesting, and accessible. As for the bottom line on safe serotonin supplements, my perhaps mis-informed question, is this: Of your 4 recommended supplements at the end of the article, is one to choose only one, or all or a combination?
    Thank you
    CJ

  3. William L. Wilson, M.D says:

    I find the paper you cite by Marty Hinz to be quite interesting. Hinz was an ER physician working in the small town of Hibbing Mn where I practiced medicine. I was likely the first physician to use precursors broadly in primary care and I usually used them with very low dose drugs like Fen-Phen. I never used these combinations for weight loss–I used them to jump-start the brain so patients would comply with dietary measures and targeted supplements. Hinz noticed that my patients were doing very well and asked me what I was doing. I discussed my approach and within a few weeks he moved to a nearby town using Fen-phen and precursors for weight loss and other conditions. He eventually lost his medical license. He also teamed up with a German guy named Gottfried Kellermann who had developed a urine test for neurotransmitters. They ended up selling these tests and supplements mainly to non-MDs who couldn’t prescribe drugs. Kellermann started to “adjust” the urine results so people would need more supplements. He was caught by the Feds and his 300+ employee Neuroscience, Inc was shut down. He was fined millions and is being deported. Thus if you want to know the score on precursors, talk to me, not the likes of Hinz and Kellermann. All these years I have been successfully using precursors along with low dose drugs with great success. And you are correct–precursors need to be balanced. The proper ratio of L-tyrosine to 5-htp is about 10 to 1. Learn more at: http://carbsyndrome.com

  4. Laura says:

    I found this article very helpful and considering I just started p5p for insomnia and high estrogen. It’s interesting that you didn’t mention estrogen considering estrogen diverts tryptophan away from serotonin metabolism and toward the kynurenine pathway. But, I can’t claim finding this research on my own as I had a Dr tell me this.

  5. Paul Wilke says:

    Flooding the body with any nutrient or neurotransmitter will cause down regulation of the receptors as a protection mechanism. A negative feedback loop can also cause less natural production of the neurotransmitter or hormone

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