Whether you’re having a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day or you’re struggling with a more serious mood disorder, such as anxiety or depression, you know all you really want is to feel a little happier.
Sure, there are pharmaceuticals for that, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with filling a prescription when you need to, but there are also scientifically proven natural mood enhancers that can help bust you out of a rut.
So next time you feel like curling up into a ball, pulling the covers over your head, and hiding from the world because everything in life sucks, force yourself to roll out of bed and try a few of the natural mood enhancers on this list.
You may be surprised how much better you feel once you start moving.
#1. Head Outside for a Morning Walk
Grab your morning cup of joe and head outside for a low-key walk. Natural sunlight and exposure to green spaces has been clinically proven to elevate mood and improve self-esteem.
In fact, in 2010 researchers at the University of Essex in England performed a meta-analysis of their own “green exercise” studies (that’s exercise performed outdoors) and found that just five minutes is enough to increase feelings of well-being.
The exercise doesn’t even have to be intense – walking, gardening and even fishing were all effective ways to “self-medicate” a little happiness.
#2. Meditate on Gratitude
According to a 2014 review and meta-analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine that looked at 47 studies and more than 3,500 study participants, meditation proved effective at improving anxiety, depression and pain, especially when practiced for eight weeks or longer.
The trick here is that the study showed no direct evidence of improved mood, which is where the addition of gratitude comes in.
In a 2003 article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers looked at the results of three separate studies that asked participants to track their mood, behaviors and physical symptoms after being placed into one of several groups.
The specific groups varied between studies, but each of them included a “gratitude” group, in which participants were asked to concentrate on the blessings in their lives.
The results were significant – individuals who focused on their blessings, rather than their burdens or neutral life experiences, exhibited heightened well-being and positive affect. In other words, they were happier.
So next time you take a 10-minute breather to sit and meditate, focus on the good things in your life – the roof over your head, the food in your belly, the people in your life who love you? You’ll probably end up feeling a little less anxious and a lot more happy.
#3. Break a Sweat
To quote Elle Woods from Legally Blonde, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands, they just don’t.”
But if you don’t trust a character from a cheesy Reese Witherspoon movie, how ‘bout an article from Harvard Health Publications? The quick review of studies dating back to 1981 pretty much came to the same conclusion as Elle Woods, “Regular exercise can improve mood in people with mild to moderate depression.
It also may play a supporting role in treating severe depression.” In fact, the article even cited studies that found regular exercise was as beneficial as prescription drugs when treating mild to moderate depression, and its effects lasted longer.
Even if you’re not depressed, the bump in endorphins you receive from a good sweat session can leave you feeling better about life. And in this case, more exercise and more intense exercise do seem to add up to increased benefits.
While even moderate-intensity walking can help improve mood, longer bouts of more than 30 minutes at a higher intensity add up to a greater improvement.
#4. Focus on Eating Whole Foods
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that what you eat can affect how you feel. While a greasy burger and fries may give you a feeling of deep satisfaction while you’re eating them, you’re likely to feel heavy, bloated and sluggish shortly thereafter. And I don’t know about you, but I’m never very happy when I’m feeling bloated and sluggish.
When you focus instead on eating a steady diet of whole, unprocessed foods, you end up not just satisfying your hunger, but delivering key nutrients to your system that keep your brain and body firing on all cylinders. The result is that you feel better mentally and physically.
It’s not just conjecture – a 2009 study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry looked at the depression rates of middle aged men and women in relation to their self-reported food consumption.
After adjusting for confounding factors, hose who ate the highest levels of whole foods were the least likely to report symptoms of depression, while those who ate the highest levels of highly processed foods were most likely to report depression.
If you’re looking to amp up your whole food intake, start with fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants, folate and B vitamins, as well as fatty fish packed with omega-3s. These compounds appear to have a protective affect against depression.
#5. Try a Supplement
Just as whole foods can deliver key mood-boosting nutrients, the right supplements can help further the cause. For instance, if you can’t stand eating salmon or other fatty fish (I happen to fall into this category), you may want to take a fish oil supplement to boost your intake of omega-3s.
But it’s not just your standard vitamins and minerals that do the trick. Consider the following mood-boosting options:
St. John’s Wort: Used for centuries to treat everything from sleep disorders to mild to moderate depression, this herbaceous plant has mixed reviews when it comes to improving mental health. While some review studies on the substance indicate St. John’s Wort is better than a placebo at treating mild to moderate depression with fewer side effects than traditional antidepressants, other review studies have found no difference in effectiveness. If you’re looking for a way to boost mood naturally, it may be worth a shot, but do talk to your doctor before you start taking it, especially if you’re already on prescription drugs. Combining St. John’s wort with certain antidepressants can lead to a life-threatening increase in serotonin.
Brahmi (Bacopa Monnieri): Brahmi is considered a nootropic – a natural brain-boosting supplement that can improve cognitive function, motivation and well-being. While more research still needs to be done, one of the best ways it appears to enhance mood is by naturally reducing anxiety.
S-Adenosyl-L-Methionine (SAMe): This supplement is derived from an amino acid, which means you also consume it when you eat food sources of protein. Like other supplements, more research needs to be done, but there is evidence that SAMe can improve symptoms of depression, and may offer results similar to those of prescription medication when used to treat mild to moderate depression.
Valerian Root Extract: Valerian root, scientifically known as valeriana officinalis, is a hardy, perennial flowering plant that is native to Europe and parts of Asia. Valerian root has been used since the classical era of ancient Greece for restlessness.
Chamomile Flower Extract: Another widely used herb, the chamomile flower has long been sought for its calming properties. The name translates from Ancient Greek as Earth Apple, for the pleasant aroma of its flowers.
Lemon Balm Leaf Extract: Lemon balm is a perennial herb in the mint family that’s native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean regions. Studies have shown lemon balm to be helpful to the body in maintaining a positive mood. In conjunction with Valerian, Lemon balm also assists with the reduction of occasional mental stress.
Jujube Seed Extract: The Jujube tree has its origins in China, but is now cultivated throughout the world due to the prized properties of both the fruit and the seed. The seed, in particular, is widely used for occasional restlessness.†
Vitamin B-3 (Niacin): Opening up capillaries and blood vessels, Niacin allows the restorative power of oxygenated blood to cleanse and detoxify the system.†
Vitamin B-6: Pyridoxine (Vitamin B-6) is one of the body’s busiest vitamins, involved in an estimated 101 chemical reactions. One of its primary tasks is to aid in the manufacturing of amino acids and neurotransmitters, including serotonin.†
Magnesium: Magnesium is needed for hundreds of your body’s basic functions, including supporting your heart and nervous system health, and maintaining blood pressure levels already in the normal range. Supporting a sense of muscular and physical calm, magnesium is commonly used to combat occasional stress and restlessness.†
Tryptophan: L-Tryptophan is an essential amino acid found naturally occurring in turkey and other proteins. It is the building block for 5-HTP, the direct precursor of serotonin. However, it is also able to convert to melatonin, aiding restfulness and sleep.†
5-HTP: The direct precursor and metabolic intermediate of serotonin, 5-HTP is the best nutrient to optimize the body’s natural supply of serotonin.