“We are what we repeatedly do.”
Your answers to these seven questions have serious implications for your mental health:
- Do you get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night?
- How much junk food do you consume?
- Do you make time for friends and family?
- Do you exercise regularly?
- How many hours a day do you sit at your desk?
- Do you smoke cigarettes?
- How much alcohol do you consume?
A new study published in Nature Mental Health found that a healthy lifestyle can prevent depression, even in those who had a genetic predisposition.
While pharmaceutical advertisements have led many to believe that major depressive disorder is caused by a lack of neurotransmitters, it has become increasingly clear that depression is much more than a chemical imbalance. Remember the classic Zoloft commercial from the early 2000s showing that sad blob with a cloud following it around?
The voiceover explains: “While the cause is unknown, depression may be related to an imbalance of natural chemicals between nerve cells in the brain. Prescription Zoloft works to correct this imbalance.”
Zoloft transforms the sad blob into a smiling blob and the cloud literally dissipates. More recent evidence paints a more complicated picture debunking this simplistic model. Antidepressant medications work for some people but not because they correct a chemical imbalance. What remains unclear is exactly how they work.
What is clear is how daily habits can boost mental health. Researchers examined data from almost 290,000 people—of whom 13,000 had depression—over a nine-year period, and identified seven healthy lifestyle behaviors linked with a lower risk of depression:
1. Prioritize sleep
Sleeping seven to nine hours per night reduced the risk of depression including single depressive episodes and treatment-resistant depression by 22%. Of all the depression reducing factors, getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis made the biggest difference.
2. Cultivate connections
3. Drink less
4. Eat well
5. Move regularly
Frequent exercise can improve daily mood and also cuts the risk of of depression by 14%. A related study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that physical activity was 1.5 times more effective than medication in reducing depression. Not surprisingly, the sports that give people the biggest boost typically involve others—tennis, soccer, and other team related activities.
6. Don’t smoke
Never smoking decreased the risk of depression by 20%. Enough said.
7. Get up, stand up
These lifestyle factors are more than icing on the cake. I would argue that they are the cake. People who maintained most of these seven healthy habits—five or more—had a 57% lower risk of depression. We all know that a healthy lifestyle is important for our physical health. It’s just as important for our mental health.
Bottom Line: While many with depression benefit from medication and therapy, lifestyle medicine can make a meaningful difference in reducing symptoms and preventing it altogether.
I wish you all the best,
Dr. Samantha Boardman