13 Scientifically Proven Ways To Boost Your Mood
You’re probably familiar with the wave of happiness that comes right after completing an intense workout. This feeling of being on cloud nine is a response to a spike of endorphins that happen as a result of certain activities. These and other neurotransmitters play a fundamental role in regulating everything from your mood to cognitive function, and with mental health problems on the rise, maintaining a healthy mindset should be a priority.
Thankfully, there are plenty of things you can do to influence your own brain chemistry and boost your mood naturally. In fact, boosting your neurotransmitters might just be the key to a life full of more joy and excitement. Read on to learn more about neurotransmitters and my expert tips for supporting a happy brain and balanced mood.
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What are neurotransmitters?
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in your brain responsible for facilitating communication between neurons and they play a pivotal role in regulating various physiological and psychological functions. Everything from your mood, cognition, behavior, and bodily processes like heart rate and digestion are controlled by your neurotransmitters.
- Acetylcholine: Plays a role in memory and learning and supports muscle contraction.
- Dopamine: Regulates your motivation and reward pathways which also impacts your mood and emotions.
- Serotonin: Regulates your mood, emotions, sleep pathways, appetite, and gut health.
- Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA): Helps regulate sleep and reduce anxiety and stress by acting as an inhibitory neurotransmitter to calm neural activity.
- Glutamate: Acts as an excitatory neurotransmitter, facilitating brain functions like learning and memory.
- Norepinephrine: Contributes to your “fight-or-flight” response.
- Endorphins: Released during exercise, excitement, or certain activities, they act as natural pain relievers and contribute to feelings of pleasure.
- Oxytocin: Often referred to as the "love hormone" or "bonding hormone”, this neurotransmitter contributes to feelings of closeness and influences emotions by reducing anxiety while promoting calmness
Unfortunately, imbalances in these neurotransmitters due to poor diet, stress, toxin exposure, and other underlying dysfunctions are common. Not only can they lead to conditions like depression and anxiety, they can trigger a slew of downstream health issues over time.
Tips to boost your feel-good neurotransmitters
As I mentioned earlier, there are many things you can do to boost your neurotransmitters and elevate your mood as a result. And the best part? Most of them are activities you likely already enjoy doing - no crazy diet or intense supplement protocols necessary!
1. Turn up the beat
All of us have a favorite band or song that resonates with us in a special way. We connect with it on a deep level and find the mix of beats and instruments so pleasurable that we can listen to it on repeat. According to a study (1) published in Nature Neuroscience, the brain releases dopamine when you are listening to music that you particularly enjoy.
2. Treat yourself to an aromatherapy session
Essential oils have become more popular than ever for all kinds of wellness needs, and that includes mood boosting. Lavender essential oil has been shown (2) to produce a calming effect similar to anti-anxiety medications like lorazepam, which work by stimulating serotonin production.
This neurotransmitter is actually produced in the gut, also known as your “second brain,” and is responsible for regulating your mood. Low levels have been linked (3) to increased levels of anxiety and depression, so place a few drops in your diffuser at work or home for a constant stream of feel-good hormones.
3. Laugh out loud
Who doesn’t love a good joke? The more you laugh, the more endorphins you release. Laughing acts a little like vigorous exercise, contracting your abdominals and triggering those endorphins. So find humor in your every day. Hang out with your funniest friends, watch more videos on YouTube, chill out to your favorite comedy, or even attend a comedy show.
4. Add in adaptogens
A lot of my patients ask me if you can fix a chemical imbalance without medication. While there are some cases where I believe medication can be necessary, there are also many natural herbal and plant medicines that can help ease stress and anxiety levels.
Adaptogens have been used for centuries but are finally getting their turn in the spotlight in the mainstream wellness world. Mucuna pruriens is one of my favorites for brain health as it contains the dopamine precursor L-DOPA, which is able to increase (4) dopamine through crossing the blood-brain barrier. Rhodiola is another adaptogen that also supports dopamine by keeping your levels stabilized. Keep these on hand and add to your morning smoothie to start your day off on a high note.
5. Light it up
No, not a cigarette. I mean light up the room with a light therapy box. The winter days give us ample time indoors to cozy up and get our hygge on. But with more time indoors comes less time out in the sun. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can leave us feeling lethargic and depressed. SERT levels (serotonin transporters) are higher in the winter causing serotonin levels to be low, which leave many to feel just plain sad. Light therapy boxes are great for boosting serotonin when getting outside isn’t an option.
6. Hit the snooze button
As if you need one more reason to stay in bed a little longer. Dopamine signals your body to wake up and bring down levels of your sleep hormone, melatonin. This system only works with properly functioning receptors and studies have shown that lack of sleep corresponds to a decrease in the wakefulness D2 receptor. So those feelings of sluggishness throughout the day can be blamed not only on fewer hours of sleep but what that specifically does to your dopamine levels.
7. Spice up your life
Pass the peppers, hot sauce, and jalapenos: the hotter the better. Capsaicin, the chemical found in spicy peppers, is responsible for that satisfying burning sensation on your tongue after a spicy meal. Your body recognizes this heat as pain and releases endorphins to help you cope until the intensity subsides. Bring on the salsa!
8. Boost your protein intake
The amino acid tyrosine found in protein sources like meat and fish helps your body make DOPA, which then converts to dopamine. Support the production of this neurotransmitter by including enough tyrosine-containing foods in your diet. This nutrient is particularly high in grass-fed beef, wild-caught salmon, and tuna as well as cage-free organic eggs. For those who are not big meat eaters, you can still get this through seeds, nuts, and legumes.
9. Learn something new
If you’ve been putting off learning a new language, trying a new recipe, or perfecting a new song on the guitar, the time is now. Dopamine is associated with being rewarded, and when we learn something new and feel accomplished, dopamine is released, (5) which makes you feel motivated and good about your new skill. This effect isn’t as pronounced when activities are too easy or too hard, so make sure to pick activities that provide just enough of a challenge.
10. Fire up your sex hormones
Try hormone-balancing adaptogens such as shilajit and ho shou wu, to wake up the sleepiest of sexy-time hormones. You and your love bunny can make delicious adaptogenic elixirs to try together!
11. Reconnect physically
Simply connecting with your partner, emotionally and physically, increases oxytocin, dopamine, and adrenaline. Oxytocin, released by your brain’s pituitary gland, is the powerful hormone that surges during orgasm. This was one of the main biological reasons why sex is a bonding experience for couples.
Studies (6) have even shown that the rush of this hormone actually increases monogamy in couples! Oxytocin also gives you that “butterflies in your stomach” feeling when you are with your amore, another highlight of the gut-brain connection and more evidence for why your gut really is your “second brain.”
As relationships mature, it gets easier to take love for granted, but you can keep the fire burning by:
- Holding hands intentionally
- Kissing a little longer
- Being thoughtful
- Speaking words of affirmation to each other
- Showing love in new, creative ways
12. Sleep better with magnesium
If you’re sleep deprived you’re definitely going to feel a little cranky. Help yourself fall asleep and stay asleep longer by supplementing with magnesium before bed as it is essential for your brain’s GABA receptors to function optimally - which as we’ve learned plays an important role in regulating your sleep-wake cycle. In fact, studies have shown (7) that people with insomnia were able to improve their sleep with regular magnesium supplementation.
13. Eat an egg-focused breakfast
Eggs, one of my favorite nutrient-dense superfoods, is packed with choline, a precursor to acetylcholine. Studies have found (8) that eggs can improve both memory and learning capacity so make the switch from sugary breakfast cereal to something more egg-focused like an omelet or scramble!
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- Salimpoor, V., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K. et al. Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nat Neurosci 14, 257–262 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.2726
- López, Víctor et al. “Exploring Pharmacological Mechanisms of Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) Essential Oil on Central Nervous System Targets.” Frontiers in pharmacology vol. 8 280. 19 May. 2017, doi:10.3389/fphar.2017.00280
- Saldanha, D et al. “Serum Serotonin Abnormality in Depression.” Medical journal, Armed Forces India vol. 65,2 (2009): 108-12. doi:10.1016/S0377-1237(09)80120-2
- Kathleen Jade, ND Dopamine Supplements May Improve Depression Symptoms, Mood, and Motivation UHN MARCH 31, 2020 https://universityhealthnews.com/daily/depression/dopamine-supplements-for-improving-mood-and-motivation/
- Arias-Carrión, Oscar, and Ernst Pŏppel. “Dopamine, learning, and reward-seeking behavior.” Acta neurobiologiae experimentalis vol. 67,4 (2007): 481-8.
- Dirk Scheele, Nadine Striepens, Onur Güntürkün, Sandra Deutschländer, Wolfgang Maier, Keith M. Kendrick and René Hurlemann Oxytocin Modulates Social Distance between Males and Females The Journal of Neuroscience 14 November 2012, 32 (46) 16074-16079; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2755-12.2012
- Abbasi, Behnood et al. “The effect of magnesium supplementation on primary insomnia in elderly: A double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial.” Journal of research in medical sciences : the official journal of Isfahan University of Medical Sciences vol. 17,12 (2012): 1161-9.
- Yamashita, Soyogu et al. “Effects of egg yolk choline intake on cognitive functions and plasma choline levels in healthy middle-aged and older Japanese: a randomized double-blinded placebo-controlled parallel-group study.” Lipids in health and disease vol. 22,1 75. 20 Jun. 2023, doi:10.1186/s12944-023-01844-w
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.
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