Dr. Kristen Mitteness
18 Research Backed Ways to Improve Your Mood
If you've lived in Winnipeg during the first four months of 2022, chances are you and many other people you know are feeling down. Seasonal Affective Disorder is real and the weather has been tough to manage. By now, we typically are experiencing warmer weather and more sun. Although the daylight is increasing, our sun exposure has been minimal. Here are 18 researched backed ways to help you get through the (extra) long winter we have the privilege (???) of experiencing at this latitude. Try one or try them all. Mix and match in a way that makes the most sense for you. We are all individual and our response to each suggestion may vary. You deserve to feel good! Disclaimer: Sometimes we need extra help and that's okay. If you are in Winnipeg and need crisis support, please seek it here! If you are elsewhere, please find local support as soon as possible.
1. Get outside (regardless of the weather). Yeah, the weather sucks. It's windy and cold. But chances are you own plenty of clothes that can help you get through it. Do you want to? No, probably not. Will you feel better if you do? I bet you will! It's pretty impressive that we now have the means to live a very comfortable life when it's -40 degrees C outside. But, that doesn't mean that we are designed to be inside all day, every day. In fact, we're not. I like to call it Vitamin N(ature). You don't have to spend a lot of time out there. Even 10 minutes is helpful. And if you get out during the sunrise or sunset you'll get bonus points. You simply have to experience it to understand. PubMed has over 20,000 published research articles on the impact of nature on our mental health.
2. Physical touch. Whether it's sex with the person you love, a big hug or cuddles with your pet, healthy, safe and loving physical touch can and does improve our moods. Good luck giving someone you love a 6 second hug and not feeling better. This article from Greater Good does an excellent job of explaining how physical touch affects your physiology and how, for many of us, it's less frequent than what it used to be.
3. Exercise. How many more studies do we need to show you that exercise improves mood? The human body was just designed to move and most of us don't do it enough. I'm kind of a jerk when it comes to exercise. I don't care if you like it or not, you need to do some kind of movement. Hopefully you can find something you do actually enjoy or a way to make it more enjoyable (music or friends often helps!). I have a YouTube channel with over 100 FREE workouts that ONLY take 10 minutes! #NoExcuses - that's my motto when it comes to exercise.
4. Just eat real food. Did you know that in Canada, nearly 50% of the food we eat is considered ultra processed? Does anyone think this is good for our health? Yes, it sure does taste good! But, food is the fuel your body uses to function. And the less processed foods we eat and more real food we eat, naturally, the healthier and happier we will be. If you're looking for a place to start, I really like the Whole30 program.
5. Eliminate the sugar. This one tags onto the last one. Yes, sugar tastes great, I know. It also sends our blood sugar and hormones on a rollercoaster resulting in high highs and low lows. Reducing our sugar consumption is hard, but is worth it.
6. Caffeine. Not everyone does well with caffeine and some of us are completely dependent on it. While I don't necessarily love either end of the spectrum, using caffeine in a way that works best for you can do wonders in improving mood and performance. Some of the neatest research that I've seen is using the combination of caffeine and l-theanine, which are often found together in green tea. Try different types to find what works best for you, if any works at all. Four Sigmatic has some really interesting mushroom and coffee blends!
7. Heat therapy. I'm a big fan of saunas. Some people prefer hot tubs and others steam rooms. When was the last time you used one and didn't feel better afterward? You can find them at many gyms and there are now even places you can book one just as you would a tanning bed. ReSauna is local to Winnipeg and that place is amazing. If you like listening to podcasts, the Huberman Lab did an episode on saunas and heat therapy. His show is always worth a listen!
8. Cold plunge. Have you ever tried an ice bath? They suck. Like, really, really suck. Try a cold shower and you'll know what I mean. But, here's the thing. Intentionally exposing yourself to a stressful event makes you more resilient. And cryotherapy has been shown as an effective treatment for depression and anxiety. And the research has been around for a few decades already. Ideally, you are covered to your neck if you're in a bath. If you are taking a cold shower, you'll want to aim for at least 4 minutes. But anything is better than nothing! So if you, at the very least, turn the shower cold for the last few seconds of your shower, you may notice an improvement in your stress response. It's cheap and simple, just not easy.
9. Mindfulness practice. There are tons of ways to develop a mindfulness practice. You can choose to eat without any distractions. You can give EFT a try. You can try a meditation app like Headspace a go. I prefer the Ziva meditation protocol (and I do it in my sauna, bonus!). No matter how you go about it, many of us feel better when we slow down a bit and become mindful of the now rather than stewing in the past or feeling anxious about the future. Find a way that works best for you.
10. Gratitude. I feel like gratitude practices are talked about all of the time now. And for good reason! Any time we take a moment to be thankful for what we have helps us become more aware of the things we can be thankful for. When we do this, we wire the pathways of our brain that do more positive thinking. Not in a Pollyanna way, but in a way that can pull us out of the gutter when we start ruminating on all of the negative in the world. I recommend doing this daily. Pick a specific number (1, 3, 5, 10, whatever). And write down that many things you are thankful for at that specific moment. You can do it at the beginning or end of you day. It can be something extravagant (these won't happen as often, they are things like birthdays, marriages, etc.) or more mundane (a sunny sky, a completed workout, smile from a stranger, food to eat). But, the type doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is that you noticed something positive to be thankful for. This is a fun interview of Brene Brown on gratitude.
11. Chiropractic adjustment. I've written on the impact of spinal health on depression, anxiety and mood before. There is more and more research coming out on it all of the time. Dr. Heidi Haavik is one of the leading researchers in looking into how chiropractic adjustments impact the brain directly and it's pretty freaking cool. I have patients tell me frequently tell me how much better they feel both physically and mentally after an adjustment and I have experienced it, too.
12. Body work. There are other forms of treatment that can also boost your mood. Massage, acupuncture, reiki and more all have their own varying influence on your body and mood. Within all the different types of body work, there are various practitioners and techniques, so don't assume that just anyone will work for you. If it doesn't feel like a good fit, try someone or something else. You'll know when it feels right.
13. Activities with friends and/or family. Spending time with people you love can do wonders for your mood. For some people, planning and prepping for these occasions can feel like a burden, but in most cases, you will feel exponentially better when you do it! This can be hosting or attending a potluck, checking out a new or favorite restaurant, going golfing or to the zoo, walking through the park or maybe putting your collective skills to the test at an escape room. When we take the time to get out of our own heads and out into the real world with other people, our whole being can shift. It's pretty magical stuff.
14. Breathing exercises. Would you believe it? There are over 18,000 research articles on breathing and stress in PubMed! And for good reason. Most of us don't breathe properly and it really does affect our lives. Read my article on that here. There are lots of different breathing techniques, so like most of the other suggestions I have made, find the one you like best. I'm sure YouTube has TONS of instructional videos on this.
15. Sleep. Is lack of sleep getting you down? Probably! According to Stats Canada, 1 in 3-4 adults are not getting enough sleep. They also note that it does affect your mental health. So, maybe fixing your sleep will improve your mood. Here are my 10 tips to get a better sleep. And if you've already tried them all, here are 5 unconventional tips to improve your sleep. I do find that some people who improve their diet, inadvertently improve their sleep. And others who start exercising regularly, start sleeping better, too. It's all worth a try!
16. Sing. When was the last time you sang when you were mad? It just doesn't happen. In fact, when I see someone singing in their car by themselves I often think, "Wow, I wish I was feeling happy enough to feel obligated to sing in my car, too." That being said, I'm often listening to podcasts, but maybe I need to crank the tunes more often. It is known that singing actually activates the vagus nerve. And the vagus nerve effects our mood...greatly. Add some dancing to that and you'll be feeling better in no time. Even if you feel a little silly in the process!
17. Vitamin D. Way too many Canadians are deficient in vitamin D. Although vitamin D is called a vitamin, it actually works more like a hormone. And it does a great job of affecting our moods. We can obtain vitamin D through direct sunshine exposure, but when we spend a lot of time indoors and the sun isn't shining much, especially in the winter, when we are covered in all the layers, we don't get much. Other great sources are fatty fish, especially sardines, dairy and eggs. However, most of us will require it in supplement form to reach optimal levels. It's worth getting your levels checked before and after you begin supplements, if you aren't already.
18. Volunteer. There's a good chance that there are people in your community who are having a much harder time than you and need some help that you can provide. Or maybe you don't want to hang out with more people and would rather help at a local animal shelter. While volunteering will help your community, it has also been shown to help your mood, too. Win-win!