Beating the Winter Blues: The Power of Serotonin-Boosting Foods

Learn to harness the power of serotonin-rich foods to boost mood.

Author: Beth Kitzis, MEd, RDN, LDN
group of seniors sitting down to eat

The winter holidays are a wonderful time to gather with friends and family to enjoy a special meal. But it can often be a time of year when people feel extra sad and may even be prone to depression. Whether it’s missing a loved one or feeling low from being cooped up inside (especially here in New England when the sun sets at 4 p.m. in December), many older adults are susceptible to the “winter blues.” 

One way to improve mental health and reduce your risk of seasonal depression is through healthy eating. Diets that are generally high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and lean meat, such as the Mediterranean diet, are often associated with decreased risk of depression. In addition, there is strong research that shows that eating a diet high in serotonin-boosting foods can help counteract the effects of the shorter and colder winter days. 

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is important for mood, sleep regulation, and hunger cues. Our gut contains a high number of serotonin receptors and thus a high quality diet can have great impact on mental health. Foods that are especially high in tryptophan (an essential amino acid) can promote serotonin production and thus possibly have a great impact on emotional well-being. These foods include:

  • Salmon
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Eggs
  • Cheese
  • Pineapple
  • Turkey

Nuts are also high in magnesium, another nutrient that is associated with combating anxiety and helping to boost mood. To help you and your loved ones keep smiling this winter, try this homemade granola, adapted from, that's full of mood-boosting whole grains, dried fruit, and nuts. 



  • 4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats 
  • 1 ½ cup nuts and/or seeds such as almonds, pecans or pumpkin seeds
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ cup canola or olive oil
  • ½ cup maple syrup or honey
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ⅔ cup dried fruit such as cranberries, chopped dried apricots, or raisins (opt for ones with no added sugar)


  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit and line a large, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the oats, nuts and/or seeds, salt and cinnamon. Stir to blend.
  3. Pour in the oil, maple syrup and/or honey and vanilla. Mix well, until every oat and nut is lightly coated. Pour the granola onto your prepared pan and use a large spoon to spread it in an even layer.
  4. Bake until lightly golden, about 30 minutes, stirring halfway (for extra-clumpy granola, press the stirred granola down with your spatula to create a more even layer). The granola will further crisp up as it cools.
  5. Let the granola cool completely. Add the dried fruit once cool. Break the granola into pieces.
  6. Store the granola in an airtight container at room temperature for 1 to 2 weeks, or in a sealed freezer bag in the freezer for up to 3 months. 

Easy honey sriracha salmon bowl (serves 4)

This super easy recipe adapted from SkinnyTaste combines mood-boosting salmon with whole grains and vegetables for a delicious and well-balanced meal for any time of year.


  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 tablespoon sriracha, plus more for serving
  • 1 tablespoon reduced-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons minced or grated fresh ginger
  • 1 ½ pounds skinless salmon filets
  • 1 cup cucumbers, sliced thin
  • 1 large carrot, shaved into thin ribbons
  • 1 ½ teaspoons rice vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 3 cups cooked brown rice
  • 1 avocado, sliced thin


  1. Preheat the broiler with a rack about 6 inches below it. Line a rimmed baking sheet with nonstick foil.
  2. In a small bowl, combine the honey, sriracha, soy sauce, and ginger; stir with a fork until the honey dissolves.
  3. Cut the salmon into 1-inch cubes and place them on the baking sheet, leaving a bit of space between each piece.
  4. Brush the salmon with the glaze and cook under the broiler for 3 to 4 minutes, or until it’s easily flaked with a fork and golden on top.
  5. Meanwhile, combine the sliced cucumber and carrots with the rice vinegar, sesame oil, and salt.

To serve:

Place 3/4 cup rice in each bowl. Divide and top with salmon, sliced avocado, cucumber/carrots, and a drizzle of sriracha, if desired. 

So, as you gather with loved ones for special meals this winter, don’t just nourish your body — nourish your mind as well. Embrace the power of nutritious foods and remember that small changes in your diet can lead to significant improvements in your overall well-being. Here’s to a season of good food, good company, and good mental health.

If you’re looking for research-based one-one-one nutrition counseling, Hebrew SeniorLife offers an outpatient nutrition counseling program at Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Boston and Dedham. Schedule your individualized session with a registered dietitian by calling 617-363-8539.

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