Three pillars of mental health: sleep, exercise, fruits and veggies

December 17, 2020 in Brain Health, Healthy Eating, Nutrition Topics in the News

Three pillars of mental health: sleep, exercise, fruits and veggies

Getting good quality sleep, exercising, and eating more fresh fruits and vegetables predicts better mental health and well-being in young adults, a University of Otago study has found.

The study surveyed more than 1,100 young adults from New Zealand and the United States about their sleep, physical activity, diet, and mental health.

Sleep is strongest predictor

The research team found sleep quality, rather than sleep quantity, was the strongest predictor of mental health and well-being. This was surprising to the researchers since sleep recommendations predominantly focus on quantity rather than quality.

While the team 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.

Depressive symptoms were lowest for young adults who slept 9.7 hours per night, and feelings of well-being were highest for those who slept 8 hours per night.

This finding suggests that sleep quality should be recommended along with sleep quantity as strategies for improving mental health and well-being in young adults.

Exercising, and eating more fresh fruits and vegetables were three modifiable behaviours which correlated with better mental health and well-being in young adults.

Well-being was highest for young adults who ate 5 servings of fresh fruit and vegetables per day; those who ate less than two servings reported lower feelings of well-being.

"Sleep, physical activity, and a healthy diet can be thought of as three pillars of health, which could contribute to promoting optimal well-being among young adults, a population where the prevalence of mental disorders is high and well-being is suboptimal," the lead researcher said

This study was observational in nature and, therefore, does not prove that sleep, exercise and eating fruits and vegetables guards against depression. The study found only an association.

The role of diet on mental health

Still, many studies have linked a healthy diet pattern – e.g., a high intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish – to a lower risk of depression in adults, children and adolescents. It’s also been associated with lower rates of anxiety and bipolar disorder.

A 2018 review of 11 studies involving 101,950 participants concluded that people who ate a proinflammatory diet had a 40 per cent greater risk of being diagnosed with depression or having depressive symptoms compared to those who ate an anti-inflammatory diet. A diet that’s heavy in red and processed meats, refined grains, added sugars, and unhealthy fats can promote inflammation in the body.  

These findings imply that eating an anti-inflammatory diet, one that’s plentiful in fruit and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and oily fish, may help guard against depression and, perhaps, may even help in the treatment of depression.

Recent findings from randomized controlled trials, the gold standard of scientific evidence, suggest that this is the case. Both studies, published in 2017, showed that eating a Mediterranean diet, which is an anti-inflammatory diet, for three months led to significant improvements in depressive and anxiety symptoms compared to participants who received only social support.

Nourish your brain

Your brain needs a wide range of nutrients to maintain healthy structure and function, nutrients that work synergistically to promote brain health.

Improving your whole diet, rather than focusing on one food or a single nutrient, matters most when it comes to benefitting mental health. Eat a variety of nutrient-rich whole foods and, at the same time, minimize your intake of foods that may harm the brain such as highly-processed foods, sugary foods, and fatty fried foods.

Source: Frontiers in Psychology, December 10, 2020.

All research on this web site is the property of Leslie Beck Nutrition Consulting Inc. and is protected by copyright. Keep in mind that research on these matters continues daily and is subject to change. The information presented is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. It is intended to provide ongoing support of your healthy lifestyle practices.