Whether it's because your boss admonished you, your boyfriend forgot your birthday or your favorite baseball team lost, we all get the blues now and then. Rather than digging yourself into a hole and hiding from your problems, why not plant a tree and breathe in the fresh air. Activities like this can actually relieve the symptoms of mild depression.
Antidepressants alter brain chemistry balance, alleviating the effects of biological influences on depression—genetic disposition, seasonal disorders, stress, among others. But planting a tree can also restore order to brain chemistry—sans the drugs. Here are seven carefree activities that may well brighten your mood:
- Ride a Roller Coaster: Leave your worries behind when you let go of the handlebars, then feel the wind on your face as you swoop down the crest. The rush comes from the release of epinephrine, or adrenaline, and norepinephrine. Norepinephrine is the target of a type of antidepressant called a norepinephrine-reuptake inhibitor, and increasing its function can help raise your mood. Activities like riding a roller coaster allow your body to activate norepinephrine function naturally.
- Berries in Chocolate: Consuming chocolate and other sweets can activate receptors in the brain's reward center. If you're feeling a loss of pleasure, the neurotransmitter dopamine, which fuels the brain's reward system, may not be operating at top speed. Recent research in depression has focused on dopamine. One tasty way to prime this reward pathway may be to satisfy your sweet tooth with a healthy treat.
- A Day at the Beach: Put on those board shorts and catch some sun-dappled waves. Although you should use sunscreen, research from Australia shows that spending time in sunlight boosts your serotonin production. Yes, many of us do get depressed without sunlight. The brighter the forecast, the higher serotonin levels rise. A low serotonin level has long been a primary indicator of depression and other mood disorders, so naturally a spike in this neurotransmitter could help you beat the blues. Besides, you can enjoy a little eye-candy, too.
- Massage, With Love: There's nothing more relaxing after a long day than a back massage, and all the better when it's given by someone near and dear. Oxytocin, a neurochemical released during social activities, especially those involving touch, can reduce levels of stress. And chronic stress increases the risk of depression. In fact, just holding hands with a friend or hugging your dog can boost oxytocin. In one study, subjects were given an oxytocin boost through a nasal spray, and asked to spend time with a friend. These subjects had lower levels of stress than subjects who only spent time with a friend or those who received an oxytocin boost alone.
- A Big, Wet Kiss. The moon reflects off the pond, but you don't notice because you're busy locking lips. Saliva is full of testosterone, so when a guy kisses a girl he transmits the male androgen to her. And a woman's delicate hormonal balance requires a certain level of testosterone—studies have shown that lower levels can be a drag on a girl's mood. Depressed men often have lower levels of testosterone, so they benefit from a rise too. Talk about a connection that transcends.
- Hit the Seafood Buffet: Tie on that plastic bib and enjoy a meal fit for a king. Make sure your plate is lined with salmon steak or other foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. Not consuming enough Omega-3 can contribute to depression, and because we cannot synthesize these special fatty acids in our own bodies, they must come from our diet. Animal studies show that deficiencies in Omega-3s lead to a 50 percent depletion of serotonin and dopamine levels. The health benefits of fish abound. As Jerry Seinfeld said, "Why are fish so thin? They eat fish."
- Take a Hike: A brisk walk or jog is a great excuse to get a breath of fresh air. What's more, moderate exercise increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a chemical messenger that allows brain cells to grow. BDNF mediates new connections and growth in the hippocampus, a brain region involved in forming new memories that often shrinks during depression. What more can you ask for? Besides boosting mood and helping your brain grow, exercise is also a great way to work up an appetite.
And that should help your mood, too.