guest post: as written by,
Are you a little down? We all struggle, from time to time, and some seasons of our lives can be particularly difficult. You know what I mean… Work frustration, money problems, family/social life issues and health troubles might all attack you at once and you just can’t seem to catch a break. Maybe you’re even on the verge of depression? Ever try to talk to someone about how you’re feeling only to be told that it’s all about attitude and you just need to put on your rose-colored glasses, find the silver lining, and the blue sky will come out again? (Seriously, what’s with all the color analogies?)
While I can agree that attitude IS a pretty big piece of the whole picture, I know for a fact that when you are really down, sometimes you need a little extra push. You need more than just a new outlook on life. And let’s admit that when you’re down it’s actually pretty hard to manufacture a new outlook… well, cause… you’re down. Maybe your brain isn’t as strong as you’d like it to be right now. You probably want to be more upbeat, but you just can’t seem to find the energy. Sometimes you need something to get the ball rolling in a positive direction, so that your mind can follow.
The good news is, there are physical things you can do to make yourself happier TODAY. Things that have nothing to do with changing your “attitude”? Sure, doing things is easier when your brain wants to do things, but if you need to make changes in your life for the better, you are still able to choose to do these things, despite wanting to or not.
We don’t often think about it, but the experiences our bodies have can change the chemistry of our brain quite drastically. And brain chemistry is HUGE. Consider the following excerpt, from humanillnesses.com(1):
“Every day, researchers are learning more about the chemicals that the neurons (NUR-ons) in the human brain use to communicate with each other. They now know that all the feelings and emotions that people experience are produced through chemical changes in the brain. The “rush” of happiness that a person feels at getting a good grade on a test, winning the lottery, or reuniting with a loved one occur through complex chemical processes. So are emotions, such as sadness, grief, and stress. When the brain tells the body to do something, such as to sit down or run, this also sets a chemical process in motion. These “chemical communicators,” or neurotransmitters, are the “words” that make up the language of the brain and the entire nervous system.”
If standing up or sitting down can cause changes in the chemical process in the brain, perhaps we shouldn’t underestimate that everything we do can cause chemical changes in the brain.
So… What things can we do TODAY that will cause a positive chemical change in our brains?
You knew this’d be on here, but go figure it’d be the first one. You’ve seen the movie Legally Blonde, right? “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people don’t shoot their husbands, they just don’t.” Elle Woods summed it up pretty nicely there. However, it’s a bit more complex than that, in reality. Moving your body and increasing your heart rate really does release feel-good chemicals, but according to researchers at the Mayo Clinic it also “lessens immune system chemicals that promote sadness and increases your body temperature which can encourage feelings of calm”(2). I’m sure that when I exercise, my body experiences all of this, but for me, the number one “happy” benefit is if I’m working out hard enough (preferably running), I literally can’t think about anything else and my mind gets a “break” from my worries. I have a happy playlist that I run to, and listening to music you enjoy can really boost your mood too – and again – drown out those negative feelings.
Change up your diet. Don’t panic! I’m not going to tell you that you have to give up everything that tastes good to be happy again. Just making a few small changes in your diet can have a pretty significant impact on your brain chemistry. Sugars and refined carbs increase your blood sugar rapidly, causing insulin imbalance and insulin resistance. Some studies are suggesting now that brain insulin resistance alters dopamine turnover and induces anxiety and depressive-like behaviors(3). Big words, but this means that we need to lower our blood sugars to increase our make-our-brain-happy chemicals. Cutting back on sugar and refined carbs is a huge step in the right direction. And don’t think that you can just replace the sugar with artificial sweeteners… There’s evidence to suggest that aspartame causes depression. Such strong evidence, in fact, that a recent study had to be cut short due to the severity of reactions in depressive people(4). It’s likely that aspartame lowers serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is one of your most important make-the-brain-happy chemicals! Don’t go squashing the serotonin, ok? Seriously.
3. Alcohol Cutback
Cut back on the booze. Sorry… I know when you’re massively bummed out, a drink (or 3) might sound like the best solution. But if you’ve been having a drink (or 3) every evening for a while now, then we might just have found the culprit of your down-ness. You’ve probably heard before that alcohol is a depressant, meaning that it slows down the functioning of your central nervous system. Not only does drinking lower those important serotonin levels again, but it also disrupts the functioning of the neurotransmitters. Even one single binge-drinking weekend is enough to cause you to feel down(5). PLUS let’s consider that a drink-induced sleep is never as restful as a sober sleep. Which brings me to my next suggestion.
Try and improve your sleep habits. You know you feel better when you sleep better. Your body needs rest to function properly, and good sleep is restorative sleep – sleep that heals your brain. And remember this is all about how the brain is functioning. Anything that improves the function of the brain will help you to feel just a little better. If sleep doesn’t come easy to you, the really good news is that the above three suggestions, more exercise, less sugar/refined carbs, and less booze won’t JUST make you happier – they will all help you to sleep more deeply as well. This is something I have worked SO hard on for the past few months. In fact, I recently wrote about my plan to get more sleep and what’s been working for me.
5. Do Something You Enjoy
Maybe your problem is that you’re just too freaking over committed. We (especially women) for whatever reason, whether we feel the need to prove ourselves, or maybe we just don’t think about it, tend to put ourselves on the back burner and be at the beck and call of our partners, friends, kids, and employers. If you can set aside just an hour or two a couple times a week to just be (and do something that you ENJOY) you’ll start to feel recharged and you might even find the energy to look for that silver lining. Plus let’s not forget that doing something we enjoy will help our brains make endorphins. Laughing? BIG endorphins. (I hear sex is even better for the endorphin creation. Just putting that out there.)
6. Go Outside
Did you know that we need sunlight? Sure, you’ve heard the thing about how sunlight causes your body to produce vitamin D, and vitamin D is very important and stuff. But that’s not what I’m talking about. Your body produces something else in the sunlight… (can you guess?)… It’s serotonin! Yup, one more (pretty easy) way to get the brain to produce those make-your-brain-happy chemicals. There’s a trick here though – no sunglasses. The sunlight needs to contact your retina to release the serotonin(6). The body is weird. Wonderful, but weird. (And just FYI, those science people are pretty sure that a lack of vitamin D is related to feeling down as well(7), they just aren’t quite sure how it might be related.)
If a lack of vitamin D might be related to your feeling less-than-joyful, you won’t be surprised to hear that the brain requires all vitamins (and minerals) to function properly. If you’re lacking in any of the important ones, then your brain might be struggling. Omega-3 fatty-acids, probiotics, vitamin B-12, and Magnesium (among others) are vital to proper brain function(8). In fact, magnesium is touted as “the most powerful relaxation mineral available(9).” Plus, it’s not even that expensive. I take lots of vitamins for anxiety (which is closely related to feelings of sadness and depression) and I firmly believe they are beneficial. (Do I sound like a crazy pill-pusher?)
Our brains are absolutely amazing things, and I think so often we underestimate the power of our bodies to heal themselves – we just gotta give them the right tools. Doing these things will help your brain to create (and put to use) the happy chemicals that you need. I went through a very low period in my life once and I started running… I remember one night sitting at a stop light on my way home after a run, and I just felt like everything was going to be ok. Even though nothing else in my situation had changed, my brain had started making the stuff it needed to pull me out of the dark.
I want to add that if you are very severely depressed, you should talk to someone about that. (Definitely try some of the things we’ve mentioned here, but don’t feel like you need to handle a severe depression on your own.)
I do hope, if you are just feeling a little down, that you can find the energy to try a few of these suggestions and let us know how it goes! Above all, remember, this too shall pass!
(1) Humanillnesses. “Brain Chemistry (Neurochemistry).” Web log post. Humanillnesses. N.p., n.d. Web.
(2) “Depression and Anxiety: Exercise Eases Symptoms.” Web log post. Mayo Clinic. N.p., 10 Oct. 2014. Web. 14 June 2016.
(3) Kleinridders, Andre, Weikang Cai, Laura Cappellucci, Armen Ghazarian, William R. Collins, Sara G. Vienberg, Emmanuel N. Pothos, and C. Ronald Kahn. “Insulin Resistance in Brain Alters Dopamine Turnover and Causes Behavioral Disorders.” PNAS. N.p., 15 Feb. 2015. Web. 14 June 2016.
(4) Kovacs, Betty, MS, RD. “Artificial Sweeteners: Health and Disease Prevention – Aspartame.” MedicineNet. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2016.
(5) “Beyond Hangovers.” NIAAA. N.p., Sept. 2010. Web. 14 June 2016.
(6) Nall, Rachel, RN, BSN, CCRN. “What Are the Benefits of Sunlight?” Healthline. N.p., 09 Nov. 2015. Web. 14 June 2016.
(7) Kjaergaard, M., Waterloo, K., Wang, C.E, et al., Effect of vitamin D supplement on depression scores in people with low levels of serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D: nested case-control study and randomised clinical trial. Br J Psychiatry, 2012. 201(5): p. 360-8.
(8) Borchard, Therese. “12 Patient-Approved Natural Supplements for Depression | Everyday Health.” Sanity Break. N.p., 08 Oct. 2014. Web. 14 June 2016.
(9) Hyman, Mark, MD. “Magnesium: Meet the Most Powerful Relaxation Mineral Available – Dr. Mark Hyman.” Dr Mark Hyman. N.p., 20 May 2010. Web. 14 June 2016.