5 proven ways to brighten your mood without a prescription
“How are you?” It’s a simple question—one you probably hear dozens of times each week. It’s usually not meant as a real question. It’s just a social shortcut, a nicety that shows you care, without having to actually care. That’s fine—we need societal niceties like this to grease the wheels of interaction. But not today. I want you to stop and think about it this time. How are you?
I hope, upon reflection, you find yourself atop the world, flying through your busy life with zeal, happiness, and calm.
That should always be the goal. In some ways, it’s really the only thing in life that matters.
But I know the reality is, no one always feels great. Sometimes, circumstances get in the way. Sometimes you’re tired or sick.
And sometimes, for no reason you can point to, the blues kick in.
But I’ve got a secret to share today. No matter how you feel, there are a few easy, effective, guaranteed ways to improve your mood. Even if you already feel great.
Today, let’s take a closer look at the five best ways to boost your mood—free of pharmaceuticals and artificial highs. Free of intrusive chemicals and quick (bad) fixes.
And often free of extra costs, as well.
1. Listen to your gut
Your gut is home to 100 million neurons. That’s more than you have in your spinal cord.
It’s why many doctors call your gut your second brain. And your second brain is responsible for almost all of your body’s production of serotonin—one of the happiest brain chemicals there is.
What stimulates your second brain to produce serotonin? In simple terms, it’s a happy gut microbiome.
So, if you’re feeling a little off—or if you just want to ensure you stay on a contented plane—it’s important to keep the bacteria that live in your gut healthy and thriving.
That means feeding them lots of their favorite food—fiber. Virtually all vegetables and fruits are full of fiber, and they encourage the growth of good bacteria.
Which, in turn, keeps you smiling.
It’s also a good idea to give your microbiome a boost with probiotics, like Greek yogurt.
And, above all else, you want to avoid harming your microbiome with harmful or caustic toxins like the artificial additives found in so much processed food. Sometimes antibiotic medicines like penicillin are necessary, but if you find yourself feeling off for a few days afterwards, now you know why.
Rebuild your microbiome quickly with plenty of fiber and probiotics after a course of antibiotics. Your smile will thank you.
2. Get moving
The runner’s high is a real thing. When you get moving, not only do you flush out any toxins that are bringing you down, but you also release a flood of endorphins—similar to morphine—and endocannabinoids—similar to the THC found in marijuana.
Former drug addicts often compare their runner’s highs to artificial ones—only without all the destructive side effects. Indeed, exercising in moderation has nothing but positive side effects.
The trick is to push yourself. Not to max exertion, but to the point that you start to get out of breath—about 70-85% of your age-adjusted max heart rate.
That is, if you’re a man, subtract your age from 220 – if you’re a woman, subtract your age from 226. That number is your age-adjusted maximum heart rate. Do an activity that gets your heart beating to within 70-85% of that number.
Do that for 30 minutes, and you’ll feel reborn.
3. Try these natural mood enhancers
Amino acids have been shown in some studies to do a good job of enhancing one’s mood.
And one natural yellow flower—St. John’s Wort—stands out for its ability to encourage and produce those amino acids in your body. It usually takes one-three months to really take effect, but some of my patients report near-immediate results.
St. John’s Wort does interact with some drugs, so if you are taking medications, consult with your doctor orpharmacist before trying it.
Other natural mood enhancers include omega-3 fatty acids, like those you find in fish, as well as lavender, Vitamin B, and valerian. Many of these supplements are better at reducing anxiety, as opposed to heightening joy, but often calming nerves is enough to increase your happiness.
If you’re interested in these supplements, try a few of them out, one at a time, and give each one at least a month to reach effective levels in your body. Your body will quickly let you know if they are right for you.
4. Get some rest!
You know the feeling. When you haven’t gotten enough sleep, the world tends to come in through a black filter. Small things annoy you, you jump to negative interpretations quickly, and you’re ready to snap at the slightest provocation.
It’s easy to see what lack of sleep does after a four-hour night. More subtle, though, is the effect of chronically getting too little sleep.
You might not notice the world getting darker on six hours of sleep every night, but it does. As long as you aren’t getting your full rest, your body ups the production of cortisol—the stress hormone.
That puts you on edge, constantly searching for the fight your hormones are preparing you for.
The easiest way to defeat this problem is to just get your full night’s sleep. If you think you don’t have the time, make it. Study after study shows that you are more effective, and get more done in less time, when you’re well-rested, anyway.
And if you need a sleep aid, try melatonin. It has a wonderful calming effect on your nervous system, and works better than warm milk.
5. Make a list (or three!)
Sometimes, when life comes at us too fast, it’s easy to feel like you’re losing at everything, that nothing you can do is right, and the world’s stack against you. I find that there are two kinds of lists that help defend against this thought.
The first kind may surprise you: it’s a to do list. Part of what gets you down is a sense that you’re forgetting things. Another part may be the sense that you’re not doing anything. I find that writing out a to-do list helps me fight against both of these feelings.
But the secret is to keep multi-level lists.
Create a master to do list, so that you don’t forget what you need to do. If you think of something that needs to be done, add it to that master list. If you think of something you want to do, but that’s going to take some work to achieve, add it to the list. This master list cuts back on your worry about forgetting something important.
But you also write out a daily list every single day.
Some of the things on the daily list are too small (or too frequent) for the master list: housekeeping chores, dropping off a package at the post office, etc. Some of the things on your daily list are small steps in a larger project from the overall list: if you’re planning to finally go on that big trip to London, your daily list might include getting a passport photo. Some of the things on the list may be things you really want to do but have been putting off, like finishing that book for your book club or church study group.
Be realistic about how much you can accomplish in any one day and make the daily list achievable. You can always add to the list if you find yourself with free time. At the end of the day, looking at the things you did actually finish helps fill you with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.
The third list I recommend is a gratitude list. If you get in the habit of writing down the things you feel grateful for and the memories you want to keep, you do two things. One, you train yourself to look at the world for positive things. Two, you have a resource from which to renew yourself on the days when you feel low.
But whatever you do, don’t take a lousy mood lying down. It’s true that you are in control of how you receive the world. But you aren’t always in control of your brain chemistry.
Take that control with these five tips. Sometimes, happiness takes a little work. But it’s always worth it.
- LeProult et al, Sleep loss results in an elevation of cortisol the next evening, Sleep, Oct 1997, 20(10):865-70
- Aleisha Fetters, How To Achieve A Runner’s High, Runner’s World, Apr 25 2014
- Annie Stewart, Herbs, Vitamins, and Supplements Used To Enhance Mood, WebMD, Dec 16 2010
Disclaimer: Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
Last Updated: September 22, 2020
Originally Published: September 28, 2016