Mike Genevie was the kind of guy who always came ready with a joke. But when his relationship with his girlfriend went sour, his sunny outlook on life turned overcast. "She stopped returning my calls," says the 27-year-old auditor from Levittown, Pennsylvania. "I found out that she was with someone else." Suddenly, when a commercial for an antidepressant appeared on television, he found himself reaching for a pen and pad instead of the remote control.
Genevie has plenty of company. A 2005 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people take antidepressants even more often than they pop pills for high blood pressure, asthma, and high cholesterol. But many often don't need to be medicated — they're just feeling down at the moment. "Antidepressants are prescribed too often," says Stuart Shipko, M.D., a psychiatrist and the author of "Surviving Panic Disorder." Dr. Shipko cautions that taking a pill can lead to real problems: addiction, sexual impairment, or both. "Unless a person has a serious mental-health problem, the risk-benefit ratio doesn't favor these drugs," he says.
Fortunately, there are plenty of DIY ways to boost your body's own feel-good forces. Try a combination of the following blues-busting strategies, and your life view can brighten up in no time.
Stack the deck with seafood
Why it works: Two types of omega-3 fatty acids are abundant in seafood — eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). In humans, high DHA levels are linked to raised levels of dopamine and serotonin, the same brain chemicals that antidepressants boost. What's more, a shortfall of DHA in animals has been linked to symptoms and markers that mimic depression. "You're at greater risk of being depressed, anxious, and irritable by avoiding fish," says Joseph R. Hibbeln, M.D., acting chief of nutritional neurochemistry at the NIH's National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
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Do this: Eat cold-water fish (salmon or mackerel) at least twice a week. Otherwise, take a daily 1-gram dose of Jarrow Formulas EPA-DHA Balance (jarrow.com). The 2-to-1 ratio of EPA to DHA makes for good brain food, because EPA seems to hold more sway than DHA over mood and behavior, according to Parris Kidd, Ph.D., a nutrition educator and contributing editor for the Alternative Medicine Review.
Be patient, Grasshopper. It takes 8 to 12 weeks for most to feel a full response kicking in.
Lift your spirits with good scents
Why it works: If the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, the way to his mood-selector switch may be through his nostrils. A Physiology & Behavior study found that people sitting in a dentist's office were less anxious and in better moods when the waiting room smelled like orange or lavender. If those scents can distract you from the drone of a dentist's drill, imagine what they can do in less torturous settings.
Do this: You're probably not the kind of guy who drives around with an air freshener dangling from his rearview. Instead, spritz on Giorgio Armani's citrusy Acqua Di Gio or Calvin Klein Eternity for Men before work or a date. Bonus: Nothing will boost your mood faster than the cute girl one cube over commenting on how swell you smell.
Set a goal — and then nail it
Why it works: Setting higher expectations for yourself doesn't create stress — it actually provides a release valve for stress. A 2006 study found that people who set goals were less anxious, felt better about themselves, and found more meaning in their lives than did their free-floating counterparts. "Setting goals boosts mood by increasing the likelihood of success, which results in better feelings about yourself and life in general," says Jennifer S. Cheavens, Ph.D., the study's lead author and an assistant professor at Ohio State.
Do this: Cheavens recommends setting reasonable, concrete goals and using multiple avenues to meet them. For example, commit to hitting the gym three times a week instead of vaguely declaring that you'll drop 10 pounds. If you miss a workout, vow to skip the starch at dinner. "You want goals to have smaller accomplishment points along the way, so you enjoy the mood boost that comes with success," says Cheavens.
Do your mind good with milk
Why it works: Milk is rich in tryptophan, an amino acid needed for the production of serotonin, a mood-boosting brain chemical. Not surprisingly, lower levels of tryptophan coincide with reduced serotonin levels. But your body can't make tryptophan on its own. So it has to come from dietary sources like milk, where the amino acid is plentiful. Otherwise, your mood could suffer from the shortfall. Do this: Drink three 8-ounce servings of whole milk a day, which translates to 0.6 grams of tryptophan, enough to lift your spirits when combined with a protein-rich diet, according to Susan M. Kleiner, Ph.D., R.D., author of "The Good Mood Diet." Yogurt, cheese, poultry, eggs, bananas, and peanuts are also good sources. "A selection of these foods should be in your diet every day to raise serotonin levels and elevate mood," says Kleiner.
Chase your bliss
Why it works: A running trail is one path to happiness. Compared with sedentary subjects, those who ran regularly were 70 percent less likely to experience high stress and life dissatisfaction, according to a study of more than 12,000 people published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. Regular exercise increases adrenal activity, which facilitates stress adaptation and enhances the release of hormones like noradrenaline, serotonin, beta-endorphin, and dopamine. These hormones all improve mood, says Peter Schnohr, M.D., the study's lead author. Do this: Dr. Schnohr suggests running, brisk walking, or any cardiovascular workout for half an hour, five times a week. Interval-style training is particularly effective, especially during a time crunch.
Hit the sack — for sex
Why it works: Oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that reduces fear and lowers your cortisol (a stress hormone) and blood-pressure levels, peaks in your body 1 to 2 minutes after climax. But whether you've had sex with a partner or simply flown solo, your body chemistry won't stay in the stratosphere for long. "Levels return to normal within 10 minutes of orgasm," says Debby Herbenick, Ph.D., a sex researcher and educator at Indiana University. Do this: Cuddle after coitus. "Oxytocin can be released not only during masturbation and intercourse, but also during close touching," says Herbenick. The longer she keeps her arms wrapped around you, the more oxytocin is released and the better you'll feel.
Ax your way through down days
Why it works: If you're feeling down, the best way to change your tune might be to listen to or even play one. A 2006 Journal of Advanced Nursing study found that listening to music for an hour a day for a week could reduce symptoms of depression by up to 25 percent. Music may also improve the outlook of a guy whose blues aren't yet clinical.
Do this: Even better for your mood than simply listening to music is creating some on your own. "Just working out a few chords or melodies can be therapeutic," says Anna Maratos, a certified music therapist and the head of Arts Therapies at the Central and North West London Foundation NHS Trust. If you want to channel your inner guitar god but can't play a lick, try "Guitar Hero" with some friends.
Lay off the sauce
Why it works: There's a reason a regular advice column in Men's Health magazine is penned by a bartender: He gets more practice than Drs. Drew and Phil combined. "Alcohol can reduce anxiety immediately after intake," says Clyde W. Hodge, Ph.D., a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "It also has antidepressant properties." Problem is, this temporary lift is followed by a mood hangover. Hodge and his researchers found that mice consuming a moderate amount of alcohol every day for 28 days seemed bummed out after 2 weeks of abstinence. What happens, says Hodge, is a reduction of new neurons in the part of the brain that appears to regulate mood.
Do this: Plan holiday activities that aren't centered on dining, which inevitably involves drinking. Plus, your holiday gloom may just be cabin fever. Head outside.
Elevate your test scores
Why it works: Testosterone's effects can be felt above the belt, too. A 2008 Archives of General Psychiatry study found that older men with the lowest levels of free testosterone were at a higher risk for depression than men with the highest levels. Researchers haven't pinpointed the link, but other studies have shown that waning testosterone levels may lead to increased fat mass, irritability, and a lower sex drive. No wonder the guys are bummed out.
Do this: To help sustain testosterone levels, Kleiner recommends snagging 30 percent of your calories from healthy fats, such as the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in olives, fish, nuts, and avocado.
Why it works: Photos do more than freeze the past: They can unlock a current bad mood, assuming the shots bring to mind happier times. Researchers from the University of Southampton found that feeling nostalgic increases self-regard, social bonds, and positive feelings.
Do this: Trade that static wallpaper on your iPhone for a photo of the kids or your most recent vacation shots. Compile a downloadable gallery at me.com.
You snooze...you win
Why it works: Sleep is a much-needed sanctuary from stress. In fact, researchers from the Stanford Sleep Epidemiology Research Center found that people with sleep disorders such as sleep apnea are five times more likely to experience depression than those who sleep soundly. "Individuals with sleep apnea generally have a sleep efficiency between 65 and 85 percent," says Maurice M. Ohayon, M.D., Ph.D., the center's director and the study's lead researcher. So those 7 hours of bedtime could become a fragmented, nonrestorative 5 hours of shut-eye. Do this: If you have a flabby midsection, snore like a foghorn, or often wake up tired, find a specialist at sleepcenters.org.
Let the sun shine in
Why it works: Too little sunshine can lead to a vitamin D deficiency, and a 2008 study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that vitamin D levels were 14 percent lower in depressed people. The sun on your skin needs exposure time to bring about the change that produces vitamin D, according to Reinhold Vieth, Ph.D., a professor in the University of Toronto's department of nutritional sciences. Do this: Vieth recommends popping 1,000 IU of vitamin D daily, since using food alone as a supply of vitamin D can be tough. Worried your levels are low" Ask your doc for a serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D test.
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