8 Drug-Free Natural Highs

By Rachel Cernansky, Planet Green

The brain is pretty good at playing tricks on us, especially on our moods. But that doesn’t mean we can’t play tricks on it, too. As the book Natural Highs points out, almost all mind-altering substances are actually similar to brain chemicals and work their effects by mimicking, enhancing, or blocking their effects. Which means we should be able to get “natural highs” without relying on these harmful substances.

Valium, for example, creates its effect by enhancing the neurotransmitter GABA in the brain, and some anti-depressants are SSRIs, or selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors—all simply making the brain do things it already does, just in different proportions.

A lot of herbs will do the same thing—St. John’s Wort and Kava Kava are two herbs well-known for their positive effects on mood and stress levels. Others, such as lemon balm, valerian, chamomile, peppermint, and skullcap, also have calming and balancing effects.

Runner’s high
The endorphins produced during exercise (of all forms, not just running) have a chemical effect on the brain: they are groups of peptides that interact with opiate receptors and reduce the perception of pain and stress—similarly to opiate drugs, except they are naturally occurring in the body and aren’t addictive. When endorphin levels increase, you feel happier and more relaxed.

Endorphins are produced after an orgasm, too. So if you missed your jog for the day…

No surprise here, but chocolate makes people happy because it contains substances that, again, trigger the release of endorphins.

Give of yourself
It’s also been shown that being generous—with your friends by treating them to lunch or by donating time or money to a favorite organization—makes people happier than spending money on material things. It seems that’s because the former produces joy in real-time but also memories that last much longer than whatever satisfaction that will come from a new pair of jeans (that may or may not fit once you start exercising more. See page one!).

Snack on some carbs. Seriously—they are necessary for moving tryptophan across the brain. Tryptophan is the amino acid that makes up seratonin, the neurotransmitter heavily associated with mood, and when carbohydrates are not available in the bloodstream, tryptophan gets trapped and won’t move to where it needs to be. Neither will your mood.

Fruits known for fighting depression include papaya, bananas, strawberries, mangos, pineapple, grapefruit, guava, apricots, peaches, apples, and dates. Omega-3′s (but not from fish oil) are also important in combatting depression.

Herbs you’ve never heard of
Henrietta’s Herbal recommends eating one potentilla leaf daily for a few weeks or months to notice a real difference—the long-lasting kind of happiness, rather than a fleeting sense of euphoria. She also says that pulsatilla can have a complementary effect.

Massage therapy, acupuncture, meditation
All shown to boost secretion of endorphins.

Saying thank you
Showing gratitude is also a mood-booster—possibly because once you stop to recognize how someone has helped you, you feel happier because you will remember and appreciate it for longer. Plus, you’ll feel better about not taking advantage of favors—and who doesn’t like a good “thank you?”

Love This? Never Miss Another Story.


Maggie W.
Maggie W.4 months ago

If you have trouble with high cholesterol make that chocolate dark, 72% cocoa or more.

Ian B.
Ian B.1 years ago

I can vouch for the runner's high. When I was young, I ran three times a week, usually just three, 8-min. miles, but this was enough to get a real boost. In my mid thirties I had a heart operation, and since then my pace is 10.5 min. miles at best, no runner's high. It's obvious from this perspective how helpful the true endorphin boost had been back in my 20's.

Shanti S.
S S.2 years ago

Thank you.

Jagoda K.
Jagoda K.3 years ago

I have severe depression and i'm taking medication, but including fruit salads with chocolate sauce won't hurt...

Yvette S.
Yvette S.3 years ago

First take care for yourself and than doing something nice for someone,that gives you a good feeling Thanks for the good advice

Debra Griffin
Debra B.3 years ago


Jenna W.
jen b.4 years ago

putting others first gives you a good feeling

Tim Cheung
Tim C.4 years ago


Sheri P.
Sheri P.4 years ago

It's been way too long since my last massage or accupuncture session...

Faith B.
Faith Billingham4 years ago

where can I get a potentilla leaf? haha