It’s normal to experience occasional jitters or a mild case of the blues. But if you’re one of the millions of people who struggle daily with sadness, anxiety or mood swings, you don’t have to feel bad. Natural whole-body solutions can help you boost mood and bolster your mental health. Here’s what to do:
1. Go ride a bike. It improves mental and emotional well-being, relieves stress, increases blood circulation to the brain, and releases endorphins—brain chemicals that improve mood and boost energy. Additionally, aerobic exercises like bike riding, jogging, swimming, walking, dancing and even gardening can reduce anxiety and depression, and may improve self-esteem and cognitive function. Recommended: 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, three times a week. If you’re not into cycling or running, a brisk walk has the same effect. It doesn’t have to be continuous; three 10-minute walks are thought to be as beneficial as one 30-minute walk.
2. Zen out. Chronic stress takes a heavy toll on mental health; it’s linked with depression, anxiety and mood disorders, and has even been linked with increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Even minor daily stressors, like work deadlines or slow-moving traffic, add up. You can’t control the world around you, but you can learn to cope with your personal triggers. Techniques that have been proven to work:
- Mindfulness meditation is especially effective at reducing stress, burnout, depression and anxiety, and meditators may also experience greater attention, awareness and improvements in cognition.
- Ignore the inbox. One study found that checking emails more frequently increased anxiety and stress; limit visits to your inbox to three times a day, and respond to your email in chunks, instead of every few minutes.
- Don’t hold your breath. Deep breathing can lower cortisol levels, reduce stress and anxiety, and cause a temporary drop in blood pressure. Try a simplified version of the 4/7/8 breath: inhale to a count of 4, hold the breath for 7 and exhale for 8. The longer-exhale pattern acts as a natural tranquilizer.
- Light a lavender candle. The scent of lavender has been shown in several studies to reduce workplace anxiety and relieve stress. Other calming essential oils: chamomile, rose geranium, bergamot and clary sage.
3. Eat good mood food. Neurotransmitters–brain chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and endorphins—relay messages between nerve cells in the brain, and a shortage of or imbalance in neurotransmitters is a primary cause of mood disorders, depression and other mental illness. Because neurotransmitters are made from amino acids, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, diet plays an enormous role in mental health. Focus on these important brain foods:
- Tofu is rich in L-tryptophan and L-tyrosine, amino acids that the body uses to produce serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. Other sources of tryptophan: turkey, chicken, fish and beans. Find L-tyrosine in cheese, almonds, avocados and whole grains.
- Bananas contain vitamin B6 (pyroxidine), necessary for converting amino acids into neurotransmitters. Other sources: wild caught tuna, salmon, grass-fed beef, sweet potatoes, hazelnuts and sweet potatoes.
- Eggs contain vitamin B12, needed to convert amino acids to serotonin and norepinephrine, and to form SAM-e, a compound that’s involved in neurotransmitter production and function. Other sources: salmon, milk, eggs, chicken and nutritional yeast.
- Oat bran contains magnesium, needed for the synthesis of serotonin and other neurotransmitters. Other sources: spinach, chard, pumpkin seeds, almonds, dark chocolate.
- Pumpkin seeds contain zinc, key in the brain’s production of GABA, a compound that directly combats anxiety and irritability. Other sources: oysters, crab, turkey, lentils, barley and lentils.
- Avocado contains vitamin E, needed to keep cell membranes flexible, allowing the smooth transmission of information. Other sources: spinach, sweet potatoes, almonds, wheat germ, sunflower seeds.
- Sardines contain omega 3 fats which improve oxygenation of the blood, stimulate conversion of amino acids into neurotransmitters and, like vitamin E, keep cell membranes flexible. Other sources: salmon, herring, tuna, walnuts, flax seed.
4. Hit the snooze button. A chronic lack of shut-eye can mess with your mental health by impacting levels of neurotransmitters and stress hormones, impairing thinking and emotional regulation; in one study, mood disorders were found in up to 50 percent of people with chronic sleep problems. Sleep more, now: start by avoiding caffeine, excessive alcohol consumption or screen time before bedtime; keep your bedroom moderately cool, dark and quiet; and ban bedtime snacking. If you still struggle, try these supplements:
- Valerian root, in capsules or tinctures, may shorten the time it takes to fall asleep and improve sleep quality; it becomes more effective over time, so take it every night for a few weeks. Magnesium has a calming effect on the nervous system, relaxes muscles and may decrease the release of cortisol.
- L-theanine, a compound found in tea, impacts levels of the amino acids affecting serotonin and other neurotransmitters.
- 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), made by the body from tryptophan, is also used to treat depression and mood disorders.
- Melatonin, a hormone used to treat jet lag, adjust sleep-wake cycles and treat insomnia, especially when it’s related to attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
- Homeopathics like belladonna, coffea cruda, aconite naples, hyoscyamus niger, passiflora and coffea cruda are super-safe; take them in combination formulas for best results.
5. Treat pain. Low-level chronic pain is a drain on mood: some studies suggest that if physicians tested all pain patients for mood disorders, as many as 60 percent might be diagnosed with depression. Managing pain can go a long way toward boosting mental health. Some of the best ways to soothe:
- Turmeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory to treat many kinds of pain, and also acts as an analgesic for joint inflammation and osteoarthritis pain.
- Capsaicin, the compound that makes peppers hot, helps treat muscle and joint pain, nerve pain in shingles, and eases the pain of rheumatoid arthritis; look for it in lotions and gels.
- White willow bark contains a compound that’s similar to the active ingredient in aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) and can treat a variety of pains, especially back pain, headaches and bursitis. Don’t take it if you’re allergic to aspirin.
- Vitamin D helps decrease the risk of rheumatoid arthritis, and can ease chronic pain, especially in the elderly; low levels have also been linked with fibromyalgia and other chronic pain disorders.
- Butterbur is an anti-inflammatory and can reduce the incidence of migraines by up to 50 percent. Be sure to buy PA-free products, to avoid pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can harm the liver.
6. Stand for something. Studies show a sense of meaning and purpose are critical to well-being, and higher levels of perceived meaning are linked with reduced need for therapy and lower levels of depression. Find a purpose: it may be anything from connecting with nature through rock climbing or painting landscapes to engaging in deep spiritual contemplation to raising a family—whatever makes you feel needed, inspired and engaged with life. And there are some tangible biochemical reasons: for example, the feeling of being in love deactivates the neural pathway responsible for negative emotions. Whatever you choose to give you meaning and purpose, make it something you can do regularly—ideally, even daily.
7. Bust the blues. Skip the anti-depressants and choose supplements to improve mood and help you find happiness. Some to try:
- St. John’s wort, a flowering herb that may be as effective as antidepressant drugs, with fewer side effects.
- Selenium, an antioxidant found in Brazil nuts and other foods, can boost mood and reduce anxiety; deficiencies are linked with depression.
- SAM-e (S-adenosylmethionine), a chemical involved in neurotransmitter function, can have significant effects in relieve mild to moderate depression.
- Saffron, from the stigma of the crocus flower, has traditionally been used to boost mood; in one study, 30 mg a day was as effective as fluoxetine (Prozac).
- Magnesium, a mineral that’s necessary for the synthesis of serotonin and other neurotransmitters, can ease depression, anxiety and insomnia.
- Zinc is necessary for producing GABA, a compound that fights anxiety and irritability associated with depression; low levels of zinc are also common in people with depression, especially those who don’t respond to antidepressant drugs.
8. Connect. As we become more accustomed to and reliant on social media, it’s easier than ever to connect. But Facebook isn’t the same as face-to-face time. Electronic connections can’t capture subtle nuances like facial expressions, eye contact and body language that convey warmth and bonding. More important, the sensory inputs of sight, sound, feel, taste and smell—key to creating true connection and lasting bonds—aren’t available in electronic communiques. That’s important to mental health; studies show people who isolate socially are more likely to be depressed and show symptoms of anxiety. Stay connected, with these simple tips:
- Get an exercise buddy. You’ll accomplish two goals: moving more (it’s harder to skip your 6 a.m. workout when someone’s meeting you at the gym), and you’ll establish a regular time for connecting.
- Go to church. If you’re even a little bit religious, churches can be a deeply fulfilling way to connect. Or look for weekly meditation groups or gatherings in another spiritual practice.
- Get to know your co-workers. Bring muffins for breakfast, invite your desk mate to go for a walk, set up a carpool, celebrate birthdays.
- Get a regular gig at a library, answer questions at a museum or join the board of a local symphony or non-profit organization.
References available on request; ask me!