If you’ve ever enjoyed a blissful nap after a hearty Thanksgiving dinner, you probably know that tryptophan had something to do with it. High protein foods, which includes turkey, are full of this essential amino acid that has long been associated with enhanced sleep.
To be more precise, it’s actually serotonin that you can thank for that post-meal bliss. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a chemical in the brain, that the body produces with the help of tryptophan. Found primarily in the central nervous system, gastrointestinal tract, and blood platelets, serotonin boasts a long list of potential benefits, including mood stabilization, feelings of happiness and well-being, enhanced focus, digestive regulation, and cardiovascular integrity.
According to Verywell Mind (www.verywellmind.com), a digital resource on mental health topics, serotonin is important to your overall sense of well-being since the chemical helps to regulate your mood and to make you feel good.
However, while serotonin occurs naturally in the body, sometimes it doesn’t produce enough to keep the brain and other systems functioning optimally. Where mental well-being is concerned, low serotonin in the brain has been linked to mood disorders, and it may have a role to play in depression.
Certain prescription drugs and over-the-counter supplements can help regulate serotonin, but as always with man-made chemicals, it’s critically important to consult with a physician before beginning any such regimen. One risk, particularly with prescription medication, can be too much serotonin (see sidebar).
A safer, and much tastier, way to potentially nudge your serotonin levels higher is by eating foods high in tryptophan. These foods include eggs, cheese, soy products, salmon, dark chocolate, and all manner of nuts and seeds (which of course have multiple other health benefits as well).
Interestingly, sunshine also has been shown to be beneficial in raising serotonin levels. Anecdotally, that makes sense, who hasn’t come away feeling better after basking on a park bench for a few minutes on a warm spring afternoon?
Exercise, particularly the aerobic variety, also can trigger the release of tryptophan into your blood, as well as decrease the amount of other amino acids, opening the door to improved mood and decreased stress levels.
If you really want to take a deep dive into this topic, check out “How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs,” a 2007 article by Simon N. Young that can be found at PubMed Central® (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc), a free full-text archive of biomedical and life sciences journal literature at the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine.
That piece is a highly academic and scholarly take on serotonin. But you may be asking a much simpler question: “What can I eat that will put me in a better mood?” If so, head to your kitchen and try one of these dishes.
Salmon and Poached Eggs with Asparagus
Eggs with yolk are high in tryptophan, as well as a great source of vitamin D, – which may help in fighting depression, and mood-enhancing vitamin B. Salmon and asparagus also are rich sources of tryptophan, making this trio a super-healthy feel-good dish.
Turkey, Avocado, and Spinach Salad
Turkey and spinach both are full of tryptophan, and avocado is a healthy fat that’s capable of increasing dopamine, another mood-boosting neurotransmitter. This combo makes a great lunch or light dinner. In either case, you’ll leave the table feeling 100 percent better about yourself and life in general.
Soy products are rich sources of tryptophan, and tofu makes a great protein substitute. The Food Network recommends a simple taco recipe that uses crunchy cubes of tofu as a base, wrapped in wheat tortillas and topped with Greek yogurt sauce and crunchy, tangy slaw.
Packed with nutritious ingredients including spinach, flaxseeds and banana, – another great source of tryptophan, this smoothie recipe from the UK’s BBC Good Food is naturally sweet and a great boost for energy and mood at any time of day. Get the recipe at here. Another great Green Recipe Smoothie Here
Trail Mix with Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate, the darker the better, 85% or more, contains tryptophan, and combined with just about any common nut (e.g., walnuts, cashews, macadamias, peanuts, hazelnuts), makes for a tasty and mood-enhancing snack.
To learn more about the benefits of a serotonin-boosting diet, check out these titles, available at Amazon and various other booksellers:
- Secrets of Serotonin: The Natural Hormone That Curbs Food and Alcohol Cravings, Reduces Pain, and Elevates Your Mood, by Carol Hart, Ph.D.
- The Serotonin Power Diet: Use Your Brain’s Natural Chemistry to Cut Cravings, Curb Emotional Overeating, and Lose Weight, by Judith J. Wurtman, Ph.D. and Nina Frusztajer Marquis, M.D.
Beware of Serotonin Syndrome
While serotonin is a good thing, too much of it is not. Serotonin syndrome is when your body has a surplus of the chemical, which can lead to extreme nerve cell activity and dangerous conditions including confusion, agitation, restlessness, headaches, changes in blood pressure and/or temperature, rapid heart rate, and more.
Prescription medications, particularly certain anti-depressants, often are the source of Serotonin syndrome. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Paxil, Zoloft and Prozac are the most commonly prescribed class of antidepressants and work by raising serotonin levels.
But other prescription medications and over-the-counter products can raise serotonin levels as well, and taking multiple drugs and/or supplements that affect serotonin levels increases risk of serotonin syndrome.
If you are taking an SSRI or other serotonin-related medication, be sure to consult your physician with regard to any supplements and/or dietary changes that may put you at risk of this condition.
Written by Allen Allnoch