DIY Antidepressants: Can You Feel Better Without Pharmaceuticals?

February 18, 2018

Here’s how to trick your brain into producing more happy chemicals.

Call me stubborn, but I’ve always been reluctant to take prescription medication for my depression.

Zoloft upset my stomach, Prozac killed my sex drive, and Wellbutrin made me explode with rage for no apparent reason. I’m glad for people who swear by their antidepressants and absolutely advocate for them to take them without shame, but for me…well, I just don’t want to go there.

So I was excited to learn that it might actually be possible for us to hack our own brain chemicals and make more happy hormones – DIY antidepressants, you might call it. Of course, we’ve always sort of known this: I’ve often said that running is my antidepressant, and wondered what I’ll do when my knees eventually give out. And anyone who’s ever worked up a sweat is familiar with the power of endorphins to give you a rush. But can we purposely up the amount of good chemicals our brains produce, besides exercising until we drop?

The answer is yes…maybe. There are four main neurotransmitters that control our happiness levels: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and good old endorphins. Let’s look at each one and see how best to get it flowing…


When your dopamine levels are low, you’re likely to find yourself feeling sluggish and unmotivated, to the point where you don’t even want to drag yourself off the sofa to retrieve a carton of ice cream and a sleeve of Oreos. When researchers deprived rats of dopamine, they were too lazy to make the extra effort to get more food – and rats love food. Increase their dopamine levels, and they’re suddenly willing to work harder for a bigger reward. We’re not so different from rats: give us a hit of dopamine, and we’re pumped and ready to go.

So, how to increase your dopamine levels? Our brains release dopamine when we reach goals, no matter how small. This is why we get a little thrill when we cross things off our to-do lists (and why I often write things like “brush teeth” on my list – it’s so easy to do, and crossing it off makes me so happy). Give yourself small goals throughout the day, and celebrate when you achieve them. For example: send that email you’ve been putting off forever, then treat yourself to a fancy coffee at the corner café. Write a cover letter for your dream job application, then break for a spin class. Scrub out the inside of your fridge (instead of cleaning the whole apartment) and then go for a drink with your girlfriends. Take some time each morning and set them up in advance, so you’re not continually having to come up with new ones, which can interrupt your dopamine flow.


Sometimes called “the love hormone,” we release oxytocin when we have an orgasm. Mothers also get an oxytocin rush when breastfeeding their babies – which helps explain why I loved nursed my little ones for so long, reveling in putting my feet up and cuddling them as the oxytocin flowed and I blissed out. Oxytocin helps us bond to each other: mothers and babies, and lovers alike.

Obviously, we can’t go around having sex with everyone and/or breastfeeding them, and luckily, those aren’t the only ways to boost our oxytocin levels. Any kind of pleasurable physical touch, including a plain old hug, will do it. (Whew.) Human touch is extremely powerful; it’s been scientifically proven to reduce cardiovascular stress and strengthen the immune system. So go ahead, go in for the hug when you say hello and goodbye to your friends. Hold hands with your parents, even if you’re well into adulthood. Give your partner a foot massage, and both of you will reap the benefits.


There’s been some controversy recently about whether depression is really caused by low serotonin levels, but one thing is certain: the absence of serotonin is linked to higher levels of loneliness, and many antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications, including Prozac and Zoloft, work by helping your brain release more serotonin. When you feel good about yourself – important, confident, well-loved – the serotonin is likely to be flowing.

One way to up your serotonin production is to think about times when you felt great about yourself. When you replay a time that you achieved something significant or had a positive experience, your brain can’t tell the difference between reality and memory: it releases the serotonin again, just like it did the first time. Writing in a gratitude journal is one way to foster this practice of reflection on times you felt good about yourself. Another shortcut to serotonin city is to take yourself outside and sit in the sun for a while: UV rays promote serotonin production.


If oxytocin is nature’s love hormone, endorphins are nature’s painkillers. Think morphine. It relaxes you and reduces your perception of pain. Lovely, no? Unfortunately, the best way to get your endorphins flowing is to be in a fair amount of distress. You know the saying no pain, no gain? Well – no pain, no endorphins. And the more pain, the more endorphins. It’s that “runners high” and “second wind” you get right after you think you’re going to drop with pain and exhaustion, and it’s why I felt so good every time I crossed the finish line on a marathon, even though my body was awfully beat up and I’d be in pain a few hours later.

So, you know what you have to do, right? Get out there and break a sweat. Run until your lungs and your legs burn. Or don’t. Because guess what? There are actually some easier ways to get a little endorphin rush after all. It won’t compare to running a marathon, but laughter has been shown to increase endorphin levels. And so has the smell of vanilla and lavender. Dark chocolate and spicy foods may also give you small endorphin boost.

I don’t know about you, but my plans tonight include binge-watching my favorite sitcoms on Netflix, while I rub lavender scented lotion into my feet, then indulging in some spicy Pad Thai, followed by vanilla ice cream with dark chocolate sauce.

Images via shutterstock.com and giphy.com.

Comment: Have you tried any of these techniques to boost your happiness levels?

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