For all the wealth that exists in the western world, it has come at a cost. The skyscrapers, constant access to information, and social media may all be perks of the first world, but they do not tell the story of how mood issues have become so prevalent in our society.
A landmark study in Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe showed that despite poverty conditions, people in Nigeria were less stress than wealthy suburban mothers living in the United States. It’s clear that we are missing something when it comes to feelings of uneasiness.
As usual, people search for the best nootropics for stress relief and mood to try and find a pill that will end the discomfort and provide relief. While there are certainly situations where this is helpful and for some it can be life changing, there are many non-supplement ways we can alter our mood.
How Does a Bad Mood Show Up?
Everything in our brain leaves a biochemical signature. If you are aroused, hungry, or irritated, there will be a clear chemical sign in the brain — if only you were strapped to an fMRI machine to take a look.
The first study to look at anxious and depressed individuals with fMRI brain scans concluded that those with anxiety have unique commonalities with each other… but they also have distinctions.
Even without fMRI brain scans, it is possible to see how unique each brain is and the variety of reasons one develops a bad mood. For some people, a poor mood is a result of too little GABA (a brain chemical utilized for relaxation and feelings of calmness). For other people a bad mood is simply a byproduct of overstimulation (perhaps from stimulants and smart enhancers!)
Yet others have a constant state of poor mood due to childhood or early trauma, which creates a constant underlying state of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Environments of Poor Mood
We have evolved in a completely different environment than the one where we currently exist. The Paleo movement has illuminated these dietary shortcomings, but the same holds true for all aspects of our lifestyle.
Whereas we used to be highly tribal, social creatures, who spent lots of time in the sun and nature, we are now cubicle bound, individualistic, and generally living in concrete minefields.
The best nootropics for mood and stress relief cannot replace many of the things we are lacking in our environment. For example, there is clear evidence that vitamin D (a vitamin from sun exposure specifically) helps to regulate the synthesis of serotonin, which is a brain chemical associated with our state of mind and mood.
Social interaction is key for certain brain chemicals. Oxytocin, a bonding chemical only found in humans and bonobos, results in improved feelings of mood and wellbeing. Without this bonding chemical, social isolation quickly turns to a poor mood and other mental health problems.
Even if we don’t feel isolated because we are constantly connected via our phone, the level of connection we experience is much less (with less depth) than we used to.
The types of relationships in our life matter too. Ensuring that the people we spend time with are generative and not draining has a huge impact on our mood.
Before diving into nootropics as a tool to improve mood, try to look more deeply at the habits and environment where you are living. We may not have the ability to make it perfect, but we can make it a heck of a lot better.
Best Nootropics for Mood: Getting Started
The human brain is a complex system, which means it is ever changing with fluctuating variables. It’s nearly impossible to assume that any one thing will do the trick, but there is solid science that in general terms, these are some of the best nootropics for mood enhancement.
Native to India, this Ayurvedic herb is a common mood enhancer and potent nootropic. In one 8 week trial of ashwagandha, participants found an improvement in mood compared to placebo. A deeper study looking at biochemical signatures found a 27.9% reduction in cortisol (a stress hormone). Pick up KSM-66 ashwagandha here, which is a controlled, extracted product that avoids heavy metal concerns from many Ayurvedic options.
Initially used as a memory enhancer, it quickly found use as a mood-boosting smart enhancer. Most of the evidence is found on forums like Reddit and Longecity where people self-experimented with great results. The results have been confirmed in animal models in the European Journal of Pharmacology from 2001, though.
The darling of the nutraceutical world is CBD right now. This byproduct of the cannabis plant is one of many chemicals that has healing and medicinal properties. While it has a bad reputation for being in associated with THC (active ingredient in marijuana), it is growing in popularity especially as an mood treatment.
One poignant study showed CBD could be a treatment for multiple mood issues. Another showed that CBD can reduce anxiety while public speaking… for people with social phobia! You can read more about cannabidiol oil here.
An amino acid found in green tea, L-theanine is a basic nootropic that has many benefits and primarily for improved mood and relaxation. Although it is not as powerful as Xanax, one study showed it had significant relaxation and calming effects. This is generally one of the most popular nootropics in combination with caffeine to reduce the feelings of persistent worry and fear that come from use of that popular stimulant.
Used by Romans and Greeks for thousands of years, lemon balm is a plant that has a GABA transaminase inhibitor called rosmarinic acid. In short, lemon balm helps increase GABA in the brain, which is associated with calmness and improvement mood for some people. Those who suffer from feelings of worry or fear from a lack of GABA (or foods that turn into GABA) can benefit greatly from lemon balm.
Another natural resource, kava is exploding in popularity in kava bars around the world. The supplement extract can be a powerful mood-boosting tool especially for women. One study found that kava could improve mood during sex and thus increase orgasm and enjoyment of the experience!
A great way to start improving mood is simply by getting enough of the minerals and nutrients that we need. Often over-excited neurons in the brain create feelings of worry or fear and especially without certain minerals like magnesium. Magnesium can help to reduce cortisol (a factor of stress) and there is an inverse relationship between magnesium and mood issues.
The #1 Best Nootropic for Mood: Psychedelics
This wouldn’t be the first time we have mentioned this, but psychedelics are a super valuable tool for improving many aspects of cognitive function including mood.
To understand why this is the case, we have to look closely at the results of the existing scientific research:
A single or series of a few experiences improve mood for up to 16 months or longer.
According to a breakthrough study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology from 2016, 51 patients were given psilocybin (magic mushrooms) to treat mood in addition to a number of other ailments.
At a 6 month follow up these changes (including improved mood, increased quality of life, meaning, optimism, and decreases in feeling of worry or fear about death) over 80% of participants sustained the same benefits without any additional psilocybin.
Psychedelic experiences last and unlike pharmaceutical options where we take pills daily, these extensive “trips” help heal some of the root causes of our stress and mood rather than act as a band-aid. This is probably why the FDA has approved phase 2 trials on psilocybin for its use in efficacy in patients with treatment resistant depression.
This is one of the reasons Michael Pollan wrote The Trip Treatment in a 2015 issue of the New Yorker. These “medicines” as they are often called help us to gain perspective on our lives and those around us, put things into context, and hopefully improve our mood and response to stressful situations.
Create a Container: Responsible Psychedelic Use
Simply because psychedelics are being validated by research doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to start using them on your own. In the 1970s many people started using LSD as a “party enhancer” and while there is nothing inherently wrong with any particular method of using psychedelics, this may not be the best way to heal mood issues and traumas.
While we do believe in psychedelic science and the research is interesting to say the least. Although we cannot recommend taking illegal substances, there exist safe settings, trusted guides or “shamans”, and appropriate places (where such is legal). For thousands of years our ancestors have used these medicines to see the world more clearly and perhaps we can do the same to avoid persistent feelings of worry or fears. Perhaps we just need some perspective sometimes.