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Does Sleep, Physical Activity, or Diet Improve Mental Health More?

Which is it, sleep, physical activity, or diet, that improve mental health more? A new study dives into which of the three make the biggest impact toward mental health and well-being in young adults

The study found that physical activity and diet are secondary and that sleep quality is the “strongest predictor of depressive symptoms and well-being.”

Shay-Ruby Wickham, the lead author of the study published in Frontiers in Psychology, says that too little and too much sleep can cause depressive symptoms. 

Renae Vania Tomczak, MBA President and Chief Executive Officer at Mental Health America of Greater Houston says sleep, exercise, and getting the appropriate nutrients through diet are the cornerstone of health and benefit nearly every system in the body—including our mental health.

Vania Tomczak said that mental disorders are often caused by a combination of factors making them complex, and it makes sense that taking more than a single action or intervention can be a stronger deterrent to reducing the risk of developing depression, anxiety, or other mental disorders.  


Sleep offers the body and brain time for renewal and recovery from the happenings of the day, Vania Tomczak says.

The CDC has reported that about 1/3 of Americans are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis. Vania Tomczak said that while the relationship may not be completely understood, sleep helps foster both mental and emotional resilience. Sleep deprivation, however, sets the stage for negative thinking, including impacting self-esteem, and making one emotionally vulnerable during interaction with others.


Physical activity releases endorphins within the body, which help to promote well-being and feelings of euphoria, and increase mood and energy, the study states. 

When it comes to low levels of physical activity and mental health, think of the statement  “runner’s high,” says Vania Tomczak. “Those who take part in more vigorous activities such as jogging or running generally have a more positive and energized outlook on life,” she added


Then there’s diet, according to the study it’s the third modifiable lifestyle behavior that can influence mental health and well-being.

Eating a diet of refined grains, processed and fried foods and consuming a high sugar intake, has been associated with increased perceived stress among female college students, and increased depressive symptoms among both male and female students.

The food you eat can be fuel for exercise or can leave you feeling groggy or unmotivated to engage in physical activity, explained Vania Tomczak.  “When people don’t get enough sleep, they tend to overeat or eat unhealthy foods when too tired to make a healthy meal,” she added.

“Vitamin C has been shown in studies to protect the body against certain types of stress that impact some forms of depression. Studies also show that vitamin C and B contain minerals that are important for optimal cognitive and emotional functioning,” Vania Tomczak said.

If you are a parent and struggling with kids who are not sleeping well during the pandemic or worried about your child’s mental health, here’s a 5-minute, anonymous, free parent survey screening which will help determine if a child’s emotions, attention, or behavior might be a sign of a problem.  

Experts have been concerned about adults and kids being depressed throughout the pandemic. Back in November 2020, while Texas reported a record of infected coronavirus cases, 26.9%of Texans felt anxiety and 20.4% were depressed according to The Census Bureau.

More coverage on improving mental health, working out at home, quick meals:

Here are easy healthy meals to make this week if you are food prepping. 

These are tips for working out while at-home, even without equipment.

Mental health experts provide insight on reinvesting energy to becoming better versions of ourselves.

RA Staff
RA Staff
Written by RA News staff.


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