The leading cause of disability worldwide, depression is a global crisis that affects 200 million people globally.
In understanding the forces that trigger the influence of the onset of depression, research has identified both biological and lifestyle factors.
In fact, a recent study has showcased which specific healthy habits can protect against the development of depression.
The Lifestyle-Depression Connection
You are what you think, eat, and, do. Our daily habits have a serious impact on our health, and that includes physical, emotional, and mental health. With this in mind, a team featuring researchers from the University of Cambridge in the UK and Fudan University in China set out to decipher how daily lifestyle habits are connected to the state of one’s mental health.
For the study, the international team used the UK Biobank. This is a large-scale database that holds information on anonymized genetic, lifestyle, and health data. The team analyzed the data of almost 290,000 individuals, 13,000 of whom had experienced depression.
The researchers then grouped the participants into three categories based on their adherence to healthy lifestyle factors: unfavorable, intermediate, and favorable.
7 Healthy Habits For A Depression Free Life
According to the findings of the study, published in Nature Mental Health, participants who followed a favorable lifestyle saw a 57% reduced risk of depression, compared to their counterparts in the unfavorable group. Also, those in the intermediate lifestyle group had a 41% reduced risk of experiencing depression.
According to MRI scans, participants who followed healthier lifestyles had certain brain regions that were of larger volume. This suggests that these connections play a vital role in mental health.
Additionally, the healthier group had specific markers in the blood, which suggests that poor lifestyle habits create an environment within the body that sets the stage for depression.
“We’re used to thinking of a healthy lifestyle as being important to our physical health, but it’s just as important for our mental health. It’s good for our brain health and cognition, but also indirectly by promoting a healthier immune system and better metabolism” – Dr. Christelle Langley, of the University of Cambridge.
In examining the data, the team also identified the following seven essential healthy lifestyle habits that mitigated the risk of depression:
1. Quality sleep
According to the researchers, getting a good night’s sleep reduced the participant’s risk of depression by 22%.
The Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC) recommends getting between seven and nine hours of sleep a night.
According to the Sleep Foundation, poor sleep can affect serotonin function, and as serotonin is a brain chemical that helps to regulate mood, this can increase the risk for depression.
“But this also could leave us with the question of what comes first? Is it the depression that’s coming first, which is affecting your sleep? Or is it the sleep that’s affecting our depression?” asks Shannel Kassis Elhelou, PsyD, a geropsychology and neuropsychology, to Medical News Today,
“Because if you’re dealing with depression, everyday stressors, like work related stress, familiar problems, or other common things that people tend to worry about can result in more frequent difficulty falling and staying asleep, especially when compared to those who don’t experience the same stressors.”
If your mental health is impacting your sleep habits, then it’s advisable to reach out to a therapist or healthcare provider.
However, if your sleep habits need improvement, Dr. Yashica Khalawan, a South African-based general practitioner, suggests the following:
- Eat dinner 3 hours before bedtime.
- Avoid the foods mentioned.
- 1 hour before bedtime, switch off all devices. Limit liquid intake to avoid bathroom trips.
- Listen to relaxing music and take a warm bath/shower. The cooling of body temperature helps signal sleep.
- Create an environment that supports sleep:
- Room temp 68 degrees Fahrenheit
- Darken the room
- Sound machine to block out outside noise
- Invest in a quality mattress and pillow that supports the alignment of the spine
- During the night, avoid checking the time, as this increases anxiety about sleep.
2. Abstaining from smoking
Adopting a smoke-free life was found to lower one’s risk of depression by 20%.
While you may view smoking as a stress-relieving exercise, the reality is that it creates anxiety and tension. In fact, previous research has found that compared to non-smokers, smokers are more likely to have depression.
While the cause of this relationship has yet to be fully understood, there is a belief that nicotine dependency associated with smoking plays a significant role.
So, how do you quit?
Dr. Humberto Choi, MD is a pulmonologist from the Cleveland Clinic. He says that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to quitting. Instead, you should adopt a multipronged approach that tackles physical cravings and provides psychological and emotional support.
“Giving up nicotine can be really difficult,” Dr. Choi says. “It requires patience and continued effort, and a person might need to try several approaches before finding the one that works, but the health benefits far outweigh the effort.”
3. Have an active social life
Researchers found that regular social interactions not only reduce the risk of depression by 18%, but they’re also the most protective against recurrent depressive disorders.
If there’s one thing the hard lockdown period has taught us during the pandemic, it’s the importance of spending time with our loved ones. Doing so is an effective stress reliever, and it can make us happier.
If you’re struggling with making connections, joining a local club that’s focused on your interests or volunteering is a great way to foster these types of relationships.
4. Regular physical activity
Exercise is important for both physical and mental health. This is why the study found that regular physical activity lowers the risk of depression by 14%.
A good workout triggers the release of endorphins, which are brain chemicals that ease pain, improve your mood, and leave you feeling more positive.
If you’re looking to start a new workout routine, you can start slow with some yoga, pilates, and swimming.
5. Low-to-moderate sedentary behavior
Sedentary living, spending six or more hours a day sitting or lying down, has been associated with increased depressive symptoms. This may be why the study found that low-to-moderate sedentary behavior prevents depression by 13%.
Besides poor mental health, sedentary behavior has been linked to increased mortality. As such, it is a must to keep your body busy and active. Aside from exercise, you can also get into the habit of taking walks, standing up from your desk, gardening, and even playing with your kids or pets.
6. Moderate alcohol consumption
Alcohol consumption and mental health are often intertwined. The study identified moderate alcohol consumption as lowering the risk of depression by 11%.
For women, moderate drinking is 1 or less a day, whereas men can enjoy 2 drinks or fewer.
Heavy drinking has been associated with many health disorders, yet it appears that moderate-to-light drinking may have some benefits. That said, if you aren’t a drinker, there’s no reason to start, as you’re better off staying clear of alcohol.
If you’re struggling with moderating your alcohol intake, it may be time to reach out for help.
7. Nutritious diet
A healthy diet can do wonders for your mental health, and that is why the study found that a nutritious diet reduced the risk of depression by 6%.
So, what’s the best diet for your mental health?
While there are variations, the consensus among published research is that a diet that features fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, whilst limiting or excluding red meat and processed foods, is the optimum eating plan for your mental health.
What about genetics?
Now that we know that lifestyle habits can influence your risk for depression, you may be curious about what role genetics can play.
Well, the researchers did assign a genetic risk score to each participant, based on known genetic links to depression. Following this, they found that those with the lowest genetic risk only faced a 25% reduced risk for depression. This then proves that while genetics can play a role, your actions play a bigger one.
“Although our DNA – the genetic hand we’ve been dealt – can increase our risk of depression, we’ve shown that a healthy lifestyle is potentially more important” – Barbara Sahakian, University of Cambridge Professor
Zhao, Y., Yang, L., Sahakian, B. J., Langley, C., Zhang, W., Kuo, K., Li, Z., Gan, Y., Li, Y., Zhao, Y., Yu, J., Feng, J., & Cheng, W. (2023). The brain structure, immunometabolic and genetic mechanisms underlying the association between lifestyle and depression. Nature Mental Health, 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1038/s44220-023-00120-1