Serotonin is a naturally-occurring neurotransmitter (a type of chemical that sends messages between neurons in the brain). The body can make serotonin on its own, but sometimes not in the amount we need to function optimally.
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You’ve probably heard about serotonin levels in relation to depression, as one of serotonin’s most important functions is balancing mood. In addition, the chemical contributes to an overall feeling of well-being, which is why several antidepressant medications are designed to increase levels of serotonin in the brain.1
However, these medications aren’t the only source of serotonin. Many of the foods we eat naturally contain serotonin. Bananas are a prime example of nutritious food that may help promote the mood-boosting benefits of serotonin.
It’s an appealing idea—but is it based on fact?
Bananas: Serotonin Superfood?
While bananas contain serotonin, having one for a snack won’t immediately lift your spirits. Unlike other forms, the serotonin found in bananas doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier,2 which means it can’t get into the brain to supplement the serotonin that’s naturally produced by the body.
However, research indicates that bananas may play a more indirect role by shoring up the amount of serotonin the brain is able to produce.3 The body needs other nutrients to properly make and use serotonin, including vitamin B6,4 and bananas are an especially rich source of this vitamin.
If a diet inadequate in vitamin B6 is contributing to low levels of serotonin, dietary changes may help—but that doesn’t mean eating one banana a day will be enough to improve your mood.
For adults (ages 19–50), the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin B6 is 1.3 milligrams (mg).5 A single medium banana has 0.4 mg (about 20% of the RDA). To get enough dietary vitamin B6 from bananas alone, you’d have to eat five a day (literally a whole bunch).
Bananas may not be a miracle mood-lifter, but that doesn’t mean they’re nutritionally worthless. For one, bananas are low in calories (on average around 105 calories) and contain virtually no fat.
According to the USDA, one medium banana (approximately 7 inches long) has around 3.1 grams of fiber, which is 12% of the recommended daily value.6
Bananas are also a rich source of potassium, an electrolyte that supports cells in nerves as well as the heart and other muscles. Having too little potassium in your diet can contribute to a number of health problems, including high blood pressure (hypertension).
You’ll also get a decent dose of immune-supporting vitamin C from bananas; around 17% of your daily value.
Other Mood-Boosting Foods
If you’re not a fan of bananas, there are plenty of other foods rich in serotonin and vitamin B6 you can choose from.
For example, you can get vitamin B6 from several protein sources, including beef liver, yellowfin tuna, salmon, and chicken breast.7
Carbohydrate sources of vitamin B6 include fortified cereals and potatoes. A cup of boiled spuds has as much vitamin B6 as a medium-sized banana.
Several B6-rich foods also contain serotonin, such as fish and poultry. Turkey also contains another key nutrient for mood: an amino acid called tryptophan.
Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin produced in the brain (the body can’t make the neurotransmitter without it).
Another important compound, 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), also uses tryptophan.8 If the body is making too little, 5-HTP can also be taken as a nutritional supplement.
Research has shown that when paired with antidepressants, the supplement may be able to help ease symptoms of depression9 (however, additional research and clinical trials are needed to strengthen these claims10).
Along with bananas, turkey, and chickpeas, there are many other foods that are natural sources of serotonin, as well as the other key nutrients the body needs to produce the neurotransmitter, such as:11
- Oily, fatty fish (such as tuna and mackerel)
- Nuts and seeds (especially walnuts and flaxseeds)
- Beans (such as kidney, pinto, and black beans)
- Fresh produce (such as leafy green vegetables like spinach or kale)
- Probiotic/fermented foods (such as kefir, yogurt, and tofu)
While a nutritious and balanced diet is beneficial for your physical and mental health, there is no one “mood-lifting” food that can be a “cure-all” for depression.
A Word From Verywell
Research shows that diet changes to support healthy bodily function and mood may be one aspect of a successful treatment plan for depression. As a result, you may decide to change how you eat to help you better manage your symptoms. However, it’s best to ensure you have the support of your doctor, as well as others such as a registered dietician and therapist, to ensure that all of your nutritional and mental health needs are being met.
Cowen, PJ, Browning, M. What has serotonin to do with depression? World Psychiatry. 2015;13(2):158-160. doi:10.1002/wps.20229
Young SN. How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2007;32(6):394–399. PMID:18043762
Young SN. How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2007;32(6):394-9. PMID:18043762
Weissbach H, Bogdanski DF, Redfield BG, Udenfriend S. Studies on the effect of vitamin B6 on 5-hydroxytryptamine (serotonin) formation. J Biol Chem. 1957;227(2):617-24. PMID:13462983
Ross AC, Taylor CL, Yaktine AL, Del Valle HB, eds. Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs): Recommended Dietary Allowances and Adequate Intakes, Vitamins. In: Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium and Vitamin D. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2011.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference. Basic Report: 09040, Bananas, Raw. Updated April 2018.
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. National Institutes of Health. Vitamin B6. Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. Updated September 19, 2019.
Strasser B, Gostner JM, Fuchs D. Mood, food, and cognition. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care. 2016;19(1):55-61. doi:10.1097/mco.0000000000000237
Jangid P, Malik P, Singh P, Sharma M, Gulia A kumar D. Comparative study of efficacy of l-5-hydroxytryptophan and fluoxetine in patients presenting with first depressive episode. Asian Journal of Psychiatry. 2013;6(1):29-34. doi:10.1016/j.ajp.2012.05.011
Kious BM, Sabic H, Sung YH, Kondo DG, Renshaw P. An open-label pilot study of combined augmentation with creatine monohydrate and 5-hydroxytryptophan for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor- or serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor-resistant depression in adult women. J Clin Psychopharmacol. 2017;37(5):578–583. doi:10.1097/JCP.0000000000000754
Flaskerud JH. Mood and food. Issues Ment Health Nurs. 2015;36(4):307-10. doi:10.3109/01612840.2014.962677
Important Notice: This article was originally published at www.verywellmind.com by Nancy Schimelpfening where all credits are due. Medically reviewed by Carly Snyder, MD.
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