If prevention is better than cure, here is a strategy that can help improve your mental health: spend the next week observing your daily habits. You can write them down in a journal to keep track of them.
How do you sleep? Are you eating foods that nourish you? Have you made time for a favorite hobby and exercise? Did you get together with friends or loved ones?
Your answers to these questions can help explain your mood – as well as your risk of depression. In fact, a new study finds that people who maintain a wide range of healthy habits, from good sleep to physical activity to strong social connections, are significantly less likely to experience episodes of depression. Researchers used Mendelian randomization – using genetics to study behavior – to confirm a causal link between lifestyle and depression. They found a reduced risk of depression, even in people with genetic variants that make them more susceptible.
“I think the biggest surprise is that if you have a favorable lifestyle, you can reduce the risk of depression by 57%, which is really a considerable amount,” says study author Barbara Sahakian, clinical psychologist and neuroscientist at the Institute. University of Cambridge.
The study included data from almost 300,000 people participating in the UK Biobank database initiative. Researchers identified seven healthy habits and found that people who maintained most of them – five or more – reduced their risk of depression by 57%. Researchers also analyzed markers of inflammation, including C-reactive protein, which is linked to depression, and found that a healthy lifestyle is linked to better scores. C-reactive protein concentrations increase in response to inflammation.
Of course, severe depression needs to be treated, and medication and therapy help many people feel better. But in recent years, as science has evolved, it has become clear that depression is not just a chemical imbalance. It’s much more complex, and growing evidence highlights the importance of habits and behaviors in helping to maintain good mental health.
1. The power of rest
At the top of the list is a good night’s sleep. Sleeping seven to nine hours a night on average reduced the risk of depression by about 22% in the study. “A lot of us think of sleep as sort of a passive process, but it’s an incredibly active process,” says Sahakian.
Not only does sleep allow us to consolidate our memories, helping us remember what we learned during the day, but research shows that it plays a key role in maintaining a strong immune system. For example, a well-rested person is better able to fight colds. And while dreaming still remains a mystery, the idea that dreams can help us regulate our emotions goes back decades.
If you suffer from insomnia or sleep problems, there is plenty of evidence that these strategies, based on cognitive behavioral therapy, can help.
2. Exercise is an elixir
There is plenty of evidence linking physical activity to improved mood. A previous study, based on survey data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that people who exercise regularly report fewer days of poor mental health.
And a recent meta-analysis found that physical activity was more effective than medication in reducing depression symptoms. Antidepressant medications tend to treat an episode of depression more quickly, says Douglas Noordsy, a psychiatrist at the Stanford Lifestyle Medicine Program. “But exercise has longer-lasting effects than an antidepressant,” he says.
For some people, medications provide some benefit at first, but this fades over time, Noordsy says. “Whereas a lifestyle change can have a more permanent and lasting effect.” Noordsy and his colleagues use a range of evidence-based recommendations and tools, from medications to therapy to behavioral approaches, including fitness, nutrition, sleep and stress management, to help patients to empower themselves.
3. A good diet is a necessity
Researchers found that people who maintained a healthy diet were less likely to experience an episode of depression. “I always recommend the Mediterranean diet or the MIND diet,” says Sahakian. Several studies show that a plant-based approach – rich in greens, vegetables, berries, whole grains, lean proteins, including beans, and healthy fats, including nuts – can help reduce the risk of illness.
The MIND diet is a blend of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet, which has been shown to reduce high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attacks and strokes. One study found that eating a salad every day is linked to sharper memory and slower cognitive decline in healthy older adults.
And a randomized controlled trial found that students who followed a Mediterranean diet improved their depression scores after three weeks, while depression scores among students who continued to eat lots of refined carbohydrates, ultra-processed foods, and snacks and sugary drinks remained higher.
4 & 5. Limit your alcohol consumption and don’t smoke
Drinking a glass of wine or a beer helps many people feel relaxed, but limiting alcohol consumption to one drink per day or less for women and two drinks per day or less for men is the recommendation of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. People who regularly consume more than this amount have an increased risk of certain cancers and a higher risk of depression. For what?
People think of alcohol as a pick-me-up, but in reality, alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that slows brain activity. The more you drink, the more you crave the high, which can increase your risk of addiction.
There are many strategies to help people drink less, and increasingly, as the sober curious movement grows, more people are taking a break from drinking.
And when it comes to smoking, there is plenty of evidence to show that smoking is not a healthy habit. And there are programs to help people quit smoking, including medications, therapies and smoke-free apps.
6. Limit sedentary time by reducing screen time
In an age where cultural norms and the allure of technology lead to more time spent in front of screens, there is growing evidence that this can be detrimental to our physical and mental health. “Sedentary behavior is very bad,” says Sahakian.
Humans are meant to move, and while watching your favorite streaming shows may be fun in the moment, if this behavior becomes a daily habit, you’re probably spending too much time on the couch and not enough time interacting with people. or in motion.
“The rate of mental health problems increases in close correlation with the deterioration of lifestyle factors,” says Noordsy. As useful as smartphones and internet-based technologies are in making our lives more convenient, it is common for people to sit for hours and hours playing video games or scrolling through pages.
“We know that long periods of sedentary time are an independent risk factor for depression, independent of the amount of exercise you do,” says Noordsy. So, even if you go for a 30-minute jog or bike ride every day, if you then spend most of the day in front of a screen, it can have a deleterious effect on your mental health.
This is a particular concern for young people who spend a lot of time on social media. At a time when teens face high rates of depression, anxiety, and loneliness, there is growing evidence that social media can exacerbate, and even cause, these issues.
Here are some effective strategies to help people reduce screen time, including scheduling a break day each week and turning off notifications, bells and chimes, so we feel less attached to our devices.
7. Cultivate friendships and social connections through hobbies
It may seem obvious, but spending time with people we love, especially when we’re doing activities we love, helps improve our mood. Another new study, published in Natural medicinebased on surveys of people in 16 countries, reveals that people 65 and older who have hobbies report greater life satisfaction and less depression.
Noordsy says people tend to know about the connections between crosswords and slowing cognitive decline, but they aren’t as aware as hobbies, whether gardening, knitting, painting, games or volunteering, can help improve our mood. As the study authors point out, hobbies involve imagination, novelty, creativity, relaxation and stimulation.
“It’s really nice to have a specific effect on mental health,” Noordsy says of the new study. “Hobbies really involve aspects of creativity and engagement,” compared to the passive activities of watching TV or scrolling through social media, he says. Whether it’s knitting or playing bridge – hobbies that may be familiar to our grandparents – “they keep us connected in a way that people have been connected over generations” , said Noordsy.
Just as we can take steps to reduce our risk of chronic diseases, research shows we can also take steps to reduce the risk of depression, says Sahakian. And often, the same strategies that promote physical health are also good for our mental health.
It is probably not possible to eliminate depression, which affects millions of Americans. Many people improve with medication and therapy, and there is now growing evidence that lifestyle medicine can help people change their behaviors. “I definitely see people who can effectively manage their symptoms through lifestyle interventions,” Noordsy says. The key is that people get the support they need to navigate change.
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