BlogNatural ways to increase serotonin and dopamine

Natural ways to increase serotonin and dopamine

10 min read

Emily Ledger

Natural ways to increase serotonin and dopamine

Our bodies contain an intensely complex network of receptors, enzymes and neurotransmitters, each playing a vital role in our overall functioning, health, and wellness. Dopamine and serotonin, for example, are two neurotransmitters known for their role in mood, pleasure, and motivation. So, what can we do to give our bodies a natural boost of these important chemicals?


Serotonin and dopamine are two of the many chemicals created naturally in the human body. They are neurotransmitters - signalling chemicals that are released at the end of a neuron (nerve cell) to interact with other cells in the body. 

The cells that release neurotransmitters make up the central nervous system and are involved in every bodily process, from physical movements to organ function and mood. But let’s take a closer look at serotonin and dopamine, specifically, including some natural ways to boost these important chemicals.

Dopamine - The great motivator

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter produced in various areas of the brain. It is involved in a number of important processes, including learning and memory, movement, and organ function; however, thanks to its role in the brain’s mesolimbic system (better known as the reward system), dopamine is most widely associated with mood. 

The dopaminergic mesolimbic system is responsible for mediating the physiological and cognitive processing of reward. Some substances and activities can trigger a reward response in the brain, leading to a release of neurotransmitters, including dopamine, to target nuclei in the dorsal and ventral regions of the brain. Dopamine is therefore essential in controlling habitual behaviours, incentive-based learning, and the desire to perform certain activities, such as exercise, sex, social interaction, drug use, and even eating certain foods. 

Maintaining healthy dopamine levels

While in many cases, our bodies are effective at maintaining a healthy balance of neurotransmitters, some factors can affect dopamine levels, which could negatively impact your health and well-being. For example, Some evidence suggests that chronic or psychosocial stress can affect the brain’s ability to produce dopamine. Other studies have found that diet can also alter dopamine levels, while in some cases, dopamine receptors simply may not function properly. 

Low dopamine levels have been linked to a wide range of conditions and symptoms, including:

  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Restless Leg Syndrome
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms
  • Reduced emotions and mood changes
  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders

Therapies that aim to boost serotonin levels are therefore considered a first-line intervention in the management of such conditions. On the other hand, some people may produce excess dopamine. This may be linked to the use of specific medications, known as dopamine agonists, that are used to treat a range of conditions, including Parkinson’s Disease, Restless Leg Syndrome, and Neuroleptic malignant syndrome (a rare side effect of some antipsychotic medications). 

Furthermore, excess dopamine is also linked to addictive behaviours, such as gambling and drug use (including alcohol and tobacco). If left untreated, high levels of excess dopamine may also lead to the development of mental health conditions, including schizophrenia.

How to increase dopamine naturally

While patients with certain medical conditions may be prescribed dopamine agonists to increase dopamine levels, some natural methods may also be effective; however, these should not be considered an alternative for people who require medical treatment for their condition. As we mentioned above, diet and the use of certain substances can significantly affect dopamine levels. So, let’s take a look at this in some more detail.

Foods that increase dopamine levels

Dopamine levels are intrinsically linked to the foods we eat as part of the brain’s reward system. When we eat certain foods that provide us with the things we need for survival (i.e., fat, sugar), we experience a boost in dopamine levels. 

Some foods that have been found to boost dopamine levels include:

  • Milk and dairy
  • Chocolate
  • High-protein products (meat, fish, pulses, vegetarian proteins)
  • Coffee
  • Seeds and nuts
  • Fruit

Of course, not all of these foods can be considered healthy. Since moving away from berries and towards processed foods, this drive to eat high-fat and sugar foods is often associated with more harm than good. Some evidence indicates that people who are overweight may experience disruptions in how dopamine works in the body; it is thought that, through increased reward-seeking behaviour, this may be linked to overexposure to sugary and fatty foods. 

Over time, as also seen in addiction, this increased exposure to sugary and fatty foods may lead to a blunted dopamine response system, meaning that more is required to achieve the same effects. A good general rule to follow when attempting to boost dopamine through your diet is to avoid processed foods, limit sugary foods and prioritise healthy fats such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. For example, try eating chocolate with a high cocoa content (at least 70%).

Cannabis and dopamine

Like a vast number of other drugs, cannabis use can have a significant effect on dopamine levels. Like tobacco, alcohol, and even caffeine, chemicals found in cannabis trigger the brain’s reward system, leading to an uptick in dopamine levels. 

However, over time, sustained exposure to all of these substances has been linked to decreased mesolimbic dopamine function, which may lead to compulsive drug seeking. It is therefore recommended that cannabis, like other available drugs, be consumed responsibly and in moderation to avoid a potential reduction in dopamine levels.

Serotonin - The mood booster

Like dopamine, serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates several bodily functions, including memory, gastrointestinal homeostasis, mood, and behaviour. It is produced in the raphe nuclei of the brainstem as well as in cells of the intestinal mucosa. The release of serotonin is known to have mood-boosting effects, leading the neurotransmitter to become known as one of the body’s “happy chemicals”. 

Serotonin is best known for its effects on the central nervous system, such as its implication on sleep, appetite, mood, and memory; however, it is also a vital neurotransmitter in various biological processes, including in the regulation of cardiovascular function, bowel motility, and bladder control, to name a few. 

Maintaining healthy serotonin levels

Lower levels of serotonin in the central nervous system and plasma are associated with a number of psychiatric and neurological disorders. Some conditions that have been linked to deficiencies in serotonin include:

  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Therapies that aim to boost serotonin levels - such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) - are therefore considered a first-line intervention in the management and treatment of such conditions. SSRIs are widely used in the treatment of depression and anxiety disorders, in addition to phobias, PTSD, and OCD.

However, having excess serotonin in the body may also have implications on your health and well-being. Serotonin syndrome or serotonin toxicity is a potentially life-threatening condition that is caused by the use of therapeutic serotoninergic drugs (including SSRIs), either alone or in combination with recreational drugs. Thankfully, most cases of serotonin syndrome are mild and can be easily treated by ceasing the use of the drug in question.

How to increase serotonin naturally

While serotonin-boosting medications are widely prescribed in the treatment of many health conditions, other methods may also be beneficial for boosting serotonin levels. Some methods (such as exercise and exposure to sunlight and vitamin D) are effective at boosting both serotonin and dopamine. But let’s take a closer look at some easy lifestyle changes that could help to increase serotonin, specifically. 

Foods that increase serotonin levels

As with dopamine production, diet is extremely important when it comes to maintaining healthy serotonin levels. When we consider that 95% of serotonin is produced in the intestine, it makes sense that diet can play such a vital role in its production. Furthermore, tryptophan - an amino acid required for the production of serotonin - cannot be produced in the body, making it essential in our diets. Luckily, tryptophan can be found in a huge variety of foods, including:

  • Meat products (chicken, turkey, red meat)
  • Pulses (lentils, beans)
  • Vegetarian proteins (tofu)
  • Dairy and eggs
  • Oats and grains
  • Fish (salmon, tuna)
  • Nuts and seeds

Tryptophan is also essential in the production of melatonin, the body’s natural sleep regulator. Eating foods that are high in tryptophan could therefore help not only to boost your mood but also to improve your sleep!

Cannabis and serotonin

Cannabinoids have been implicated as potential therapeutic aids in a wide range of health conditions and symptoms, including many that are linked to a deficiency in serotonin. For example, clinical studies indicate that CBD possesses anxiolytic effects that are potentially linked through its interactions with the serotonin (5-HT) receptor. It is believed that CBD acts similarly to an SSRI, zimeldine.

However, while limited evidence indicates that low doses of cannabis may be beneficial for increasing serotonin, high doses may have the opposite effect. More clinical evidence is therefore required to fully understand the relationship between cannabis and serotonin.

Other ways to naturally boost dopamine and serotonin

Fatty foods and substance use are far from the only things that have been found to boost dopamine. These include:

Exercise: Exercise has been found to significantly boost dopamine and serotonin release, potentially leading to improved motivation, better memory, and of course, a happier mood! They don’t call it the “runner’s high” for nothing!

Supplements: Some supplements - particularly those that are high in omega fatty acids - have been found to boost dopamine and serotonin levels. Products such as fish oil, L-tyrosine, Mucuna pruriens, L-theanine, and Rhodiola rosea may all be effective for increasing dopamine, while 5-HTP is often used to increase serotonin levels; however, more clinical evidence may be required.

Vitamin D exposure: Vitamin D is extremely important for maintaining healthy dopamine levels. Vitamin D is also effective at activating tryptophan hydroxylase - the isozyme that synthesises serotonin. Sadly, it is estimated that around 50% of us are deficient in this vital vitamin - so, something as a simple stroll in the sunshine could help to give you a boost! 

Final thoughts

Dopamine and serotonin are extremely important for our overall health and well-being. Maintaining healthy levels of these chemicals is vital for the effective functioning of a huge range of cognitive and physiological processes. Discovering natural ways to boost serotonin and dopamine can help to improve mood, appetite, sleep, and many more indicators of a healthy life. 

It is important to seek medical advice before starting any new treatments. The patient advisors at Releaf are available to provide expert advice and support. Alternatively, click here to book a consultation with one of our specialist doctors.

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Emily, an accomplished content writer with a specialisation in cannabis and alternative health, leverages her five years in the sector to enhance education and diminish stigma around medicinal cannabis use.

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