How to Increase Serotonin Levels Naturally

Seasonal affective disorder causes winter depression in one in five Americans. (Photo: Max kegfire/Shutterstock)

Seasonal affective disorder got you down? You are not alone. Health experts estimate that as many as one-fifth of Americans are affected by the condition, also known as SAD, each year. In a nutshell, SAD is brought on by the shorter days of winter when lower light levels result in lower levels of a mood-enhancing chemical called serotonin in the body. While prescriptions do exist to ease symptoms, there are also lots of changes that you can make to naturally increase serotonin levels and banish the winter blues.

The symptoms of SAD may vary from mild sadness to debilitating depression, with everything from low self-esteem, irritability, insomnia, and panic attacks in between. These symptoms usually ease on their own in the spring, when the days are longer and light levels are higher. But in the meantime, there are a number of things you can do to feel better. Here are a few natural ways to increase your serotonin levels:

Get outdoors. It can be hard to talk yourself into going outside when the temps drop and your warm bed is calling, but even a short walk can significantly increase your light exposure and consequently, your serotonin levels. Bundle up, and go grab a breath of fresh air.

Let there be light. The shorter daylight hours of winter mean that you are exposed to less serotonin-producing light each day. Replace this missing light with an indoor light therapy box. Prices and styles vary, so talk to your health care provider about which model might work best for you.

Exercise. Exercise might be the last thing on your mind when you are feeling down in the dumps, but if you can talk yourself into 15 minutes of dancing to the radio, you will likely notice a serotonin boost that will in turn ease your symptoms.

Massage. Research has shown that serotonin levels increase after massage therapy. Researchers don't know if it's the human contact or the actual act of massage that increases serotonin, but the bottom line is that it does and there is no better reason to ask your partner for a back rub— or splurge on a trip to the spa — than this.

Eat well. Ravenous hunger is a common symptom of SAD and that could make you want to hit the fridge for pick me ups all day long — but be selective about the foods you eat. You may be drawn to sweets and simple carbs, such as pasta, bread, and cookies, but these "comfort foods" will leave you feeling bloated and blah before the day is out. Instead, try to boost your intake of lean protein and fruits and veggies to give your body the nutrients it needs to produce serotonin. If fruit and vegetables aren't your thing, talk to your health care provider about natural supplements that you can take — such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, St. John's Wort, or fish oil — to help alleviate symptoms.

Don't go it alone. The most important thing you can do if you are suffering from SAD is to reach out to family and friends. Call your college roomie, make a lunch date with your mom, or ask your BFF to come over and watch a movie. Sometimes, just knowing that you've got people in your corner is all your need to improve your mood and pull you out of your sadness.