A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Boost your ‘happy hormones — nine simple ways to boost your mental health

By Amy McKeever
National Geographic

There’s no shortage of hacks for boosting your mental health. Some are tried and true: Exercise regularly and get plenty of sleep. Other approaches are not yet well understood, like taking magnesium supplements or plunging your body into frigid water. And then there are the methods that aren’t entirely legal (for now), like microdosing psychedelics.

But over the years, my colleagues have reported on other self-care tips that are backed by science and fairly easy to access. I’ve been tapping into some of them these past few weeks after a cold, dark January that felt like an eternity. Maybe you could use them too?

You can boost your “happy hormones” like serotonin with a healthy mix of vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, protein and carbohydrates. (Photo by Andrea Frazzetta, National Geographic)

Granted, some of these tips are only going to get you so far if you’re going through something really heavy (or if you’re just worn down by the neverending Dumpster fire of global events). In a world where there’s not much you can control, here are some of my favorite things that you can:

1. Spend more time in nature. Look, we’re National Geographic—surely you’re not surprised that getting outside is first on this list. But there’s overwhelming evidence that it really can help reduce stress, improve your mood, and even keep you healthy. How so? For one, research has found that looking at complex patterns found in ferns, flowers, mountains, ocean waves, and other elements of nature can induce more of the alpha waves in your brain that are associated with relaxation.

Our readers seem to particularly love “forest bathing” — a mindful hike through the woods — for reaping the health benefits of nature. But if you’re not able to get outdoors, experts say there are helpful things you can do to bring nature to you instead, like tossing open a window to let in a fresh breeze or using nature-inspired scents.

2. Listen to birds.
 I teased my colleague Sarah Gibbens when she told me last year that she listens to bird songs to help her focus at work. But the more that I think about it, the more genius it sounds. As Sarah herself wrote in 2022, studies have shown that simply being in the presence of birds can put you in a better mood. Obviously the real deal is likely more effective as a mental health boost—after all, it involves being outside in nature. But I may just cue up those bird sounds the next time I’m having a bad day.

3. Declutter your space. Getting organized won’t help with diagnosed depression. But as Daryl Austin reported earlier this year, it can still make a difference for your mental health. “You’ll feel less exhaustion, enhance your productivity at the office, and greatly improve the quality of your life if you can learn how to declutter and become organized,” said Joseph Ferrari, a distinguished professor of psychology at DePaul University and a recognized scholar on clutter and disorganization.

Ready to give decluttering a shot? Ferrari and other experts had some great research-backed recommendations for how to get started. To me, the most surprising takeaway is that you should look but not touch while you’re sorting out items to toss. Studies show that touching your possessions makes you more attached to them!

4. Cut back on ultra-processed foods. I’ve always known that frozen pizza and chips are bad for my physical health. But I didn’t realize until I read Janis Jibrin’s story in November that these ultra-processed foods might also be fueling my anxiety.

In fact, research shows that people whose diets are high in these foods — which also include soda, candy, energy bars, and fruit-flavored yogurt — had a 44 percent greater risk of depression and 48 percent higher risk of anxiety. Fun!

Fortunately, Jibrin also asked experts for advice on how to eliminate these foods from your diet. My favorite tip came from Ashley Gearhardt, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, who reminds us to “treat yourself with compassion. It’s not your fault, you’re in an environment designed to addict you.”

5. Eat more of these foods instead. On the flip side, your diet can also go a long way toward boosting your mental health. “There are no magic food bullets that will relieve stress,” wrote Jason Bittel in a story for us last year — but you can boost your levels of happy hormones like serotonin by getting a healthy mix of vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, protein, and carbohydrates. He asked nutritionists to recommend a few foods that are particularly good at targeting those hormones — which is great news for anyone who likes dark chocolate or bananas.

6. Trigger your feel-good hormones. Beyond food, there are other ways to trigger the release of those happy hormones: dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin. A 2023 story offers a few examples of how to get high on your own hormones — ranging from the dopamine rush you get from something as simple as finishing a task to the serotonin release that comes with meditation. And dog parents are in luck: Research shows that playing with your pet can give you a stress-relieving surge of oxytocin.

7. Plan a trip. Taking a vacation is a no-brainer when it comes to boosting your mental health. But what if you don’t have the means or the time? Well, it turns out that even just planning a vacation can make a difference. As my colleagues on our travel team reported during the pandemic, research shows that anticipating a trip “can increase a person’s happiness substantially.”

8. Go for a bike ride. Of course, any kind of exercise is going to be good for your mental health. But our family team reported last year that bicycling is one of the best physical activities you can do to feel better. “Our research shows that kids who get out for a bike ride at least once a week report higher levels of mental well-being,” said cognitive scientist Esther Walker, research program manager at Outride, a nonprofit organization that supports programming for youth.

She and other scientists are still working to find out why biking is so good for you but it might have something to do with all the executive-function skills you need to coordinate your movements and navigate around obstacles that cross your path.

9. Try light therapy. Seasonal depression comes for us all. (Although some people are more likely to get it in the summertime.) Scientists are still investigating why but the leading theory is that the darker days of winter disrupt your circadian rhythm — which is cued up each day by the morning light.

Talking to a therapist and taking up hobbies can help mitigate your seasonal depression, experts say. But they also tout the benefits of light therapy — or, as my colleague put it, “sitting in front of a bright box of light.”

This story is republished from Kentucky Health News.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment