Boost your brain’s happiness

The following is a summary of an article that I enjoyed reading entitled, “How to increase serotonin in the brain without drugs” by Simon N. Young.


*Note* I am completely supportive of people who do go the route of traditional medicine if that is what works best for them and those around them. Serious symptoms of depression (go here for a pretty extensive list) should be discussed with your doctor or mental health professional. This little list of things below, however, includes healthy suggestions that can benefit everyone. Especially if you find yourself feeling a mild case of the blues, try one or more of these suggestions.


1. Don’t underestimate the power of positive thinking!

Self-induced positive changes in thought (or changes due to psychotherapy) can change brain metabolism. A study conducted by Perreau-Linck et al. (2007) suggested that self-induced changes in mood can affect serotonin synthesis. Meditation, too, has a strong effect on the brain, and it can increase dopamine (Kjaer, Bertelsen, Piccini, et al., 2002).


Sometimes it helps me (this is now my advice not the original author’s) to write down my thoughts so that I can examine the contents of my thoughts more clearly. Writing has a way of making me process rather than just ruminate. Prayer with the belief that I am directing the contents of my heart and mind toward God feels more focused than mediating. I’ve not had much guidance or practice trying to meditate, and I’m not really all that interested in it (though I think it’s great for those who are patient enough to really power through the distractions and focus). Personally I prefer the self-induced changes via thought or prayer, but do what works best for you! The key is to take control of your thoughts when they start to go grim!


2. Shed a little light on the subject.

Exposure to bright light may also enhance serotonin levels in the brain. People have known for a while that bright light helps people with Seasonal Affective Disorder, but now some researchers concur that it may also help with nonseasonal depression (Golden, Gaynes, Ekstrom, et al., 2005), in prenatal depression (Epperson, Terman, Terman, et al., 2004), and premenstrual dysphoric disorder (Lam, Carter, Misri, et al., 1999).


My advice: Get outside, if possible. Even on a cloudy day, the level of light outside is generally much higher than it is indoors. I know that winter can bring some harsh weather. I found, however, that once I stopped discounting cloudy, cold days as non-outside days I felt much better. Even just a short walk or some time playing outside all bundled up can really lift the mood. If schedules or weather make that too challenging to get outside in a day, then buy a light that simulates the sun.


3. Move it!

Studies examining the relationship between exercise  and mood pretty clearly demonstrate that exercise has antidepressant effects (Davis, Alderson, Welsh, 2000). Exercise has been shown to increase the amount of serotonin in the brain as well as tryptophan. Purified tryptophan in the brain is a mild hypnotic. Exercising just makes me feel better on so many levels. It boosts my self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-efficacy. It also reminds me that what my body can do is awesome which shifts the focus from caring primarily about appearance to thinking about function and overall well-being. My advice: just get up and do something. Try it!


4. Eat happy food

Don’t go turkey-bingeing trying to achieve an elevated hypnotic state; purified tryptophan in your brain acts differently than the kind you consume from your food. In order to achieve an increase in brain serotonin through dietary consumption, you have to increase the amount of dietary tryptophan relative to the other amino acids that you consume. Now, this is what I read in the original article that I am summarizing by Simon N. Young. I don’t fully understand all of it. I basically concluded that high-protein foods  generally are jam-packed with a bunch of other amino acids besides just tryptophan; it’s like all those other amino acids call the shots in your brain; tryptophan has to take the back seat.

So, in order to get a real brain boost from dietary tryptophan, you’ll need to get it from a source that isn’t loaded with tons of other amino acids. So, they say that the domesticated chick pea fits the bill. It’s loaded with tryptophan and not too many other amino acids. So, eat some hummus or some chick peas if that’s an option for you.

My advice: think of food as fuel more often than not. Think about what you’re eating and how it will make you feel after the thrill of taste is gone. I’m the first to admit that I enjoy treats, too. If I find that my diet is becoming one big treat, however, I usually find that I am getting bigger as well–and feeling worse.


So, that concludes my attempt to sum up a great article and give you four concrete ways to naturally boost your brain chemicals.





Blomstrand E. (2001). Amino acids and central fatigue. Amino Acids, 20:25-34.


Davis, JM, Alderson NL, Welsh RS. (2000). Serotonin and central nervous system fatigue: nutritional considerations. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 72:573S-8S.


Epperson CN, Terman M, Terman JS, et al. (2004). Randomized clinical trial of bright light therapy for antepartum depression: preliminary findings. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 65:421-5.


Golden RN, Gaynes BN, Ekstrom RD, et al. (2005). The efficacy of light therapy in the treatment of mood disorders: a review and metaanalysis of the evidence. American Journal of Psychiatry, 162:656-62.


Kjaer TW, Bertelsen C, Piccini P, et al. (2002). Increased dopamine tone during meditation-induced change of consciousness. Brain Research: Cognitive Brain Research,13:255-9.


Lam RW, Carter D, Misri S, et al. (1999). A controlled study of light therapy in women with late luteal phase dysphoric disorder. Psychiatry Research, 86:185-92.


Perreau-Linck E, Beauregard M, Gravel P, et al. (2007). In vivo measurements of brain trapping of α-[11C]methyl-L-tryptophan during acute changes in mood states. Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, 32:430-4.


Young, S. N. (2007). How to increase serotonin in the brain without drugs. Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, 32(6): 394-399.




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