Naturally Boost Happiness with These Strategies
We’re obsessed with happiness. Gretchin Rubin’s The Happiness Project became a bestseller in 2009, you’ll find #happiness in numerous social media hashtags, and psychologists have designed a whole science around the subject.
Search for “happiness” on PubMed and you’ll find over 5,000 studies about everything from boosting wellbeing to classifying happiness as a psychiatric disorder. (Don’t worry: that latter proposal was deemed “scientifically irrelevant.”)
Brain chemicals, scientifically called neurotransmitters, help your brain communicate and determine whether you feel happiness. “Improving the balance of these chemicals seems to help brain cells send and receive messages,” writes Sara Gottfried, MD, in The Hormone Cure, “which in turn may boost mood.”
While numerous players including dopamine contribute to that feeling, serotonin is the head honcho in the happiness field. According to Gottfried, serotonin works “as a general gatekeeper of other neurotransmitters in your brain.”
Along with a little help from vitamin B6, your brain manufactures serotonin from the amino acid tryptophan. While it plays a key role there, your digestive tract and blood platelets actually house about 90 percent of serotonin.
“Of the approximately 40 million brain cells, most are influenced either directly or indirectly by serotonin,” writes Colette Bouchez in WebMD. “This includes brain cells related to mood, sexual desire and function, appetite, sleep, memory and learning, temperature regulation, and some social behavior.”
Serotonin does other things, but you get the point: You want optimal amounts of this “happy hormone” sticking around.
“Adequate levels of serotonin provide emotional and social stability,” writes Hyla Cass, MD, in her book Natural Highs. According to Cass, low serotonin levels contribute to:
- Sleep disturbances
- Increased sensitivity to pain
- Emotional volatility
- Alcohol and drug abuse
- Carbohydrate cravings
Can Low Serotonin Levels Make You Fat?
That last one could partly explain eating behaviors and obesity. Some scientists believe tryptophan-deficient diets lead to low serotonin levels, increasing appetite and binge eating.
Here’s the thing. Most of us aren’t tryptophan deficient, meaning we get sufficient dietary protein and therefore enough of this amino acid to make serotonin. Interestingly, researchers found protein isn’t the serotonin deal-breaker. Rather, sufficient amounts of carbohydrate help deliver tryptophan to your brain to elevate serotonin.
“Carbohydrate consumption – acting via insulin secretion and the ‘plasma tryptophan ratio’ – increases serotonin release; protein intake lacks this effect,” write Judith Wurtman and Richard J. Wurtman, both PhDs who wrote a pivotal study about carbohydrates and depression several decades ago in Scientific American.
In other words, you need sufficient insulin for tryptophan to cross the blood-brain barrier and become converted to serotonin.
The low-serotonin theory might explain why you get that serendipitous rush diving into a hot fudge sundae. It might also explain why very low-carbohydrate diets don’t often work long-term: Without enough carbohydrate, insulin may not deliver sufficient amounts of tryptophan to your brain.
Happiness in a Pill?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health’s latest statistics, 6.7 percent of Americans struggle with major depressive disorder over a 12-month period, with about 30 percent of those cases classified as severe.
The pharmaceutical industry feels your pain. “Despite our ambivalence, sales of psychiatric drugs amounted to more than seventy billion dollars in 2010,” writes Gary Greenberg in The New Yorker. “They have become yet another commodity that consumers have learned to live with or even enjoy, like S.U.V.s or Cheetos.”
Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, are a class of anti-depressants that increase serotonin by inhibiting its reuptake (hence their name) by increasing levels available that bind to receptors. In other words, SSRIs keep whatever serotonin you’ve got sticking around. They don’t make new serotonin.
“We never ask why your serotonin levels are low in the first place or why your serotonin delivery system isn’t working as it was designed to – sending the right messages but not being ‘heard’ by your cells,” says Mark Hyman, MD, in his book The UltraMind Solution.
SSRIs “often limit the highs along with the lows,” adds Cass, “ and many people taking them end up with a zombielike lack of emotion, as well as a host of other side effects.” Among their numerous potential problems, SSRIs create sexual as well as cardiovascular issues and (at least in children and adolescents) increase suicide risk.
SSRIs can become lifesaving with severe depression, but far more often become over-prescribed and prescribed in cases where natural strategies could become more long-term effective without pharmaceutical drugs’ side effects.
If you struggle from depression, please don’t dismiss or treat the issue lightly. Speak with your doctor about potential solutions, work with a naturopath, and never discontinue any medications without your physician’s approval.
That said, the right dietary, nutrient, and lifestyle strategies can go a long way towards alleviating depression and help you feel more empowered, optimistic, and joyful.
Clean Up Your Diet
Optimal serotonin levels begin with what goes on your plate. Your body builds serotonin from the amino acid tryptophan, so it makes sense eating sufficient amounts of protein can help make this neurotransmitter. “No tryptophan equals no serotonin equals a very unhappy mood,” writes Hyman.
According to Jackie Wicks, author of The Cheat System Diet, ideal protein sources include grass-fed beef, free-range poultry, wild-caught fish, and pea-rice protein powder.
Considering about 60 percent of your brain consists of fat, you’ll also want to consume sufficient amounts of dietary fat. Healthy fats build stable cell membranes and optimize serotonin as well as other neurotransmitter levels.
“Healthy fats are essential,” writes Wicks. “Without them, you wouldn’t be able to live. Healthy fats include omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish, fish oil, chia, and flax seeds) and monounsaturated fats like olive oil, all of which have positive effects on our blood.” These healthy fats also keep you satiated and improve our mood.
Besides providing those essential fatty acids, wild-caught fish and fish oil are among the ideal anti-inflammatory foods. Studies associate mental health disorders with low-grade inflammation, and epidemiologic evidence connects increased fish consumption with decreased levels of depression.
Carbohydrates become a little trickier. You’ll remember earlier that carbohydrates help get serotonin to your brain via insulin, yet sugary, empty-nutrient carbohydrates spike and crash your blood sugar, leaving you lethargic and ultimately lowering serotonin levels.
According to Emily Deans, MD, in Psychology Today, “having obscene amounts of sugar and carbohydrate over long periods of time can max out our serotonin machinery, leaving us unhappy, carb-craving, and depressed.”
Instead, opt for slow-release, high-fiber carbohydrates. Wicks provides a detailed list in The Cheat System Diet. Green vegetables are best, followed by fruits, sweet potatoes, quinoa, and legumes that provide nutrients, antioxidants, and fiber.
Get Enough Sleep
You’re familiar with the aftermath of even one crappy night’s sleep. You’re hyper-caffeinated, cranky, more likely to blow off your workout, and becoming stressed or anxious over the smallest frustrations.
Among its many problems, studies show chronic sleep loss decreases serotonin receptors. But according to Jennifer Landa, MD, it isn’t that simple.
“The role of serotonin in sleep is poorly understood,” she says. “Serotonin levels actually increase when we’re awake and reach their lowest levels when we’re in REM sleep. Sleep deprivation has been shown experimentally to elevate serotonin and alleviate depression in more than 50 percent of depressed subjects studied. Depression recurred when subjects were allowed to sleep again.”
Sounds paradoxical, but Landa has a theory why that happens. “Lower serotonin levels in sleep may help restore the sensitivity of the serotonin receptors, making our brains more sensitive to our serotonin when we wake up,” she says. “Additionally, cortisol, our stress hormone, increases during sleep deprivation and interferes with serotonin production.”
Keep in mind that serotonin eventually becomes melatonin, which helps maintain your body’s circadian rhythm. If you’re low in serotonin, you might not be making enough melatonin, so supplementation becomes ideal. Hyman also recommends 5-HTP and GABA (more on those in a minute) for optimal sleep.
Studies show intervals of intense stimulation increases serotonin, feel-good endorphins, and other neurochemicals that decrease anxiety and increase pleasure.
“A comprehensive review of the relation between exercise and mood concluded that antidepressant and anxiolytic effects have been clearly demonstrated,” writes Simon N. Young in his Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience (JPN) review “How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs.”
Landa says aerobic exercise like running or cycling and yoga prove most effective for raising serotonin. Whatever you opt for, make it challenging and enjoyable.
“When you enjoy the feeling of exercise, you are motivated for life,” writes Wicks. “When you start doing a workout that you like, you may begin to realize why some people claim to love exercise. And that’s because those people know about flow,” when “your body and mind come together to make exercise engaging, fulfilling, and entertaining.”
Try These Nutrients:
You can “influence neuronal activity by supplying the right nutrients to make them work optimally, including the raw materials to make the neurotransmitters,” writes Cass. “To put it simply: enough of the happy ones make you feel high, while deficiency will make you feel unmotivated or tired.”
Ideally, you’ll begin with a professional-quality multi that provides optimal amounts of vitamins B6 and other nutrients as well as fish oil. Beyond that base, consider these supplements to naturally optimize serotonin and other neurotransmitter levels without pharmaceutical drugs’ side effects.
Rhodiola is an herb that, according to Gottfried, “seems to alter levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin in the brain.” Rhodiola carries an impressive track record for reducing stress-induced fatigue as well as mild to moderate depression and significantly improving generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) symptoms. Another study found combined with Gingko biloba, rhodiola could lower your stress hormone cortisol and increase physical endurance.
5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is the rate-limiting precursor to serotonin, and studies show oral supplementation can enhance serotonin levels in humans. 5-HTP easily crosses the blood-brain barrier and effectively increases central nervous system serotonin synthesis.
One study called 5-HTP “a clinically-effective serotonin precursor.” Low serotonin levels have been associated with obesity, and studies show 5-HTP can help you lose weight. One double-blind study found significant weight loss, reduced carbohydrate intake, and early satiety within the 5-HTP group. Better 5-HTP brands add vitamin B6, necessary to convert 5-HTP to serotonin.
GABA is a calming neurotransmitter that helps balance excitatory neurotransmitters. “I would venture to say that in our high-stress, plugged-in, 24/7 society, 60 – 75 percent of women could use more GABA support,” says Jill Carnahan, MD. “Stress depletes both GABA and serotonin and who isn’t stressed nowadays? It’s one of my favorite go-to quick fixes for stress, alcohol cravings, insomnia, or anxiety.”
Manufacturers make GABA supplements by fermenting the amino acid glutamic acid. “Supplemental GABA appears to boost GABA levels to promote relaxation and help management of stress and anxiety in everyday life,” says Trevor Cates, MD.
“Theanine is one of the active ingredients in green tea and promotes mental clarity and has a calming effect,” says Carnahan. Studies show L-theanine reduces psychological and physiological stress responses and (at least with animals) increases serotonin, dopamine, and GABA levels.
You probably don’t drink a lot of green tea, and even if you do, caffeine could cancel out L-theanine’s calming effects. To get therapeutic amounts, consider a professional-quality L-theanine supplement.
What does your gut have to do with happiness? Everything. “The gut and brain have a steady ability to communicate via the nervous system, hormones, and the immune system,” writes Deans in another Psychology Today article. “Some of the microbiome can release neurotransmitters,” she says, “just like our own neurons do, speaking to the brain in its own language via the vagus nerve.”
Scientists continue to study the gut-mind connection, and research connects intestinal permeability and other gut disorders with increased levels of depression.