It’s a common myth that eating a healthful diet and exercising regularly are just for getting fit and staying in good physical health. But while our lifestyle habits play an important role in many body functions, they also influence our mental health and emotional well-being profoundly.
There is a tendency to think of physical and mental health as two distinct, separate states, but humans are social and emotional beings. Our mental health affects how we think, act, cope with feelings, interact with others, and it even influences our daily health choices. Mental health issues like anxiety, chronic stress, and depression are extremely common nowadays, and they can be as debilitating as physical illnesses.
So, how to maintain good mental health even in a world that seems to be getting more and more stressful each day? Researchers from the University of Otago in New Zealand have some suggestions.
For the study, published recently in Frontiers in Psychology, investigators from New Zealand asked more than 1,100 young men and women between the ages of 18 and 25 about their diets, sleeping habits, and mental health. They found that getting more quality sleep, exercising regularly, and eating a diet rich in raw fruits and vegetables were strong predictors of good mental health.
The research team was shocked to find that sleep quality, not quantity, was the strongest predictor of mental health and well-being. “”This is surprising because sleep recommendations predominantly focus on quantity rather than quality. While we did see that both too little sleep – less than eight hours – and too much sleep – more than 12 hours – were associated with higher depressive symptoms and lower well-being, sleep quality significantly outranked sleep quantity in predicting mental health and well-being,” said Shay-Ruby Wickham, the principal investigator of the study in a statement.
After sleep quality and quantity, physical activity and diet – specifically consuming 5 servings of raw fruits and vegetables daily, were also significant predictors of mental health.
The Importance of Sleep
Tens of millions of Americans experience chronic sleeplessness and insomnia, which can be triggered by a variety of factors. Interestingly, chronic stress, anxiety, and depression are among the most common ones. This hints at a bidirectional or “two-way street” relationship between sleep and mental health, where both contribute to the development and consequences of one another.
Past studies have found that poor sleep can elevate a person’s risk for chronic conditions like diabetes and stroke. Research shows that sleep-deprived individuals tend to experience a decreased interest in sex and have lower libidos. Additionally, sleep deprivation – which obstructs critical biological processes like glucose metabolism, inflammation, and immunity – has repeatedly been associated with cardiovascular issues, including high blood pressure, obesity, and heart disease.
Mental Health and Diet
Just like any other organ in the body, the brain needs energy to function. This energy comes from nutrients found in the things we consume, namely the foods we eat and any supplements we may take. Because the brain needs nutrients to do its job, it makes sense that the food we choose to consume influence our cognitive functions. Research suggests that the connection between diet and mental health may, at least in part, stem from the close relationship between the brain and the gastrointestinal tract, also known as the “gut.”
For instance, serotonin is a chemical that functions both as a hormone and as a neurotransmitter. Known as the “happy chemical,” serotonin is strongly connected with feelings of well-being and mood regulation. As a neurotransmitter, it helps relay messages to and from different parts of the brain. Recent research has also revealed that up to 95 percent of the body’s serotonin is made in the gut, and just five percent is produced by the brainstem. The health of the bacteria that live in the gut (aka the microbiome) that produce serotonin and other chemicals depends immensely on our eating habits.
The Exercise Effect
The links between mental health and physical activity are not yet entirely clear. Still, research suggests that regular exercise can help ease anxiety and depression in several ways. For example, working out gets your blood pumping, including the blood that travels to and from the brain, which can help you think more clearly. Physical activity also releases endogenous cannabinoids, a cannabis-like chemical that induce a release of dopamine, another “feel good” chemical that influences our mood and motivation. Signs of low dopamine levels include depression, low sex drive, decreased energy levels, and trouble concentrating.
Increasing your raw fruit and vegetable intake, being physically active, and most importantly, sleeping better – not necessarily more – can benefit your mental health and well-being. If you’ve been struggling to sleep at night, here are some quick and easy tips to try:
- Avoid caffeine before bed
- Don’t eat large or fatty meals at night
- Take a natural sleeping supplement (melatonin is one of the best drug-free options)
- Limit screen time before bed
- Minimize naps
- Try breathing or relaxation exercises
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