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Diet, Exercise, and Sleep Are Pillars of Mental Health, Study Finds

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Key Takeaways

  • For good mental health and well-being, it's important to eat raw fruits and veggies, stay physically active, and get the right amount of good quality sleep.
  • A new study found that the strongest predictor of mental health and well-being is sleep quality.
  • However, if you're struggling with your mental health, it's important to seek help from your doctor.

Going back to the basics is the key to better mental health in young adults, according to a recent study from University of Otago, New Zealand. The research, published in Frontiers in Psychology in December, surveyed more than 1,100 adults between the ages of 18-25, focusing on their sleep, physical activity, diet, and mental health. The conclusion? Getting good quality sleep, exercising, and eating more raw fruits and vegetables is crucial for good mental health and well-being.

Study Findings 

The research team, led by Shay-Ruby Wickham as part of her Master of Science, found the strongest predictor of mental health and well-being is sleep quality, not sleep quantity.

“This is surprising because sleep recommendations predominantly focus on quantity rather than quality,” Wickham says. “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.”

Shay-Ruby Wickham

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.

— Shay-Ruby Wickham

Depressive symptoms were lowest for young adults who slept an average of 9.7 hours per night, and feelings of well-being were highest for those who slept for eight hours per night.

After sleep quality and sleep quantity, “physical activity and diet are secondary but still significant factors” for good mental health and well-being, say the researchers. Participants answered questions about their physical activity (including sports, exercise, and brisk walking or cycling) and their weekly consumption of raw fruit, raw vegetables, processed (cooked, frozen, or canned) fruit, processed vegetables, fast food, sweets, and soda.

Shay-Ruby Wickham

Increased awareness about the importance of good quality sleep, along with a healthy diet and regular physical activity, can act to promote good mental health among young adults. These can be thought of as three pillars of health, which each contribute to optimal well-being among young adults.

— Shay-Ruby Wickham

Well-being was highest for those who ate 4.8 servings of raw fruit and vegetables per day, while those who ate less than two servings, and also more than eight servings, reported lower feelings of well-being. However, dietary factors did not predict depressive symptoms.

What Makes This Study Important? 

While previous research tends to examine sleep quality/quantity, exercising, and eating more raw fruits and vegetables in isolation of each other, the University of Otago study shows that they are all important for predicting flourishing versus suffering in young adults, Wickham says.

However, the new study does have its limitations. “These findings are correlations only—we did not manipulate sleep, activity, or diet to test their changes on mental health and well-being,” Wickham says. “Other research has done that and has found positive benefits. Our study suggests that a 'whole health' intervention prioritizing sleep, exercise, and fruit and vegetable intake together, could be the next logical step in this research.”

When life gets busy, sleep is often one of the first things to be sacrificed. But it's a fundamental component of good mental health and well-being. "Increased awareness about the importance of good quality sleep, along with a healthy diet, and regular physical activity, can act to promote good mental health among young adults," Wickham says. "These can be thought of as three pillars of health, which each contribute to optimal well-being among young adults."

Other Ways to Stay Mentally Healthy

If you feel as if your sleep quality and exercise and eating habits are in pretty good shape, but your mental health isn't as good as you'd like it to be, Aron Tendler, MD, chief medical officer of BrainsWay, has a few tips. "Make goals every day that are in your control to finish," he suggests. "These can be as simple as taking a 10-minute walk, starting one of your favorite books or even just making the bed each morning."

Dr. Tendler also recommends limiting your exposure to the media. "Turn off the news channels at night and turn on a comedy," he says. And on that note, "They say that laughter is the best medicine," he adds. "In this case, it can be a great remedy for preventing the onset of anxiety or other negative emotions."

Aron Tendler, MD

There's only so much you can do to manage mental health as an individual, so it’s important to remember to reach out to loved ones or a mental health professional when you feel overwhelmed.

— Aron Tendler, MD

Sometimes, doing the opposite of what you feel like can actually make you feel better. "If you don’t feel like taking a walk, do the opposite and head out the door," Dr. Tendler says. "If you don’t feel like talking, call a friend anyway. You’d be surprised at how doing the opposite of what you want can do you good, and make you feel a sense of accomplishment after."

However, if you think you just can't cope with your mental health issues, you don't have to struggle alone. "There's only so much you can do to manage mental health as an individual, so it’s important to remember to reach out to loved ones or a mental health professional when you feel overwhelmed," Dr. Tendler says.

For those living with major depressive disorder (MDD), there are a myriad of personalized and successful treatments. "Part of the process is getting to the root of the cause," Dr. Tendler explains. "Sometimes it is as simple as switching medications. For depression, there are many options including talk therapy, antidepressants and as well as Deep TMS, an FDA-approved, noninvasive treatment using a magnetic field to directly reach wider and deeper brain regions. The first step on the road to treatment is reaching out to begin the journey of finding the one that works best for you."

What This Means For You

If you increase your consumption of raw fruits and veggies, incorporate physical activity into your daily routine, and take steps to improve the quality of your sleep, your mental health and well-being will benefit. If you find it difficult to fall asleep at night, or wake frequently during the night, ask your primary health care provider for advice.

  

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  1. Wickham, S et al. The Big Three Health Behaviors and Mental Health and Well-Being Among Young Adults: A Cross-Sectional Investigation of Sleep, Exercise, and Diet. Frontiers in Psychology. 2020 Dec. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.579205