The pandemic may be on the wane in the US, but our lingering mental health issues are still with us, and as many as 40 percent of American adults have struggled with their mental health in the past year, according to the CDC, including conditions like anxiety, depression, or substance abuse. Still more people report feeling that they are "languishing" or stuck in a rut.

But other than tell ourselves to buck up and feel better, or go let off some steam by treating ourselves to a night out or a day away in some beautiful natural surroundings, which is shown to improve mood, there are 3 substantive things we can do to bolster our mental and emotional health and have a major impact on our physical wellbeing, according to a new study. The findings even surprised the researchers, since they didn't expect the answers they discovered.

Note that it's more important than ever to not allow mental health conditions to fester since over time these emotional issues (like loneliness, anxiety or social detachment) can impact our physical health, and make it harder and more unlikely to regain a state of total wellbeing.

If you are among the more than 1 in 5 American adults who are experiencing mental health challenges, there are several options to improve the state of your situation, by focusing on your physical health and better nutrition. according to the Mental Health Foundation.

Certain food groups have been shown to negatively impact mood and mental wellbeing. Some are obvious such as sugar, which has been linked to depressive symptoms,  but others are less well-known culprits, such as caffeine which has been shown to increase cortisol release in the brain among people already undergoing stress. Meanwhile, a diet high in saturated fat has been shown to drive up depression, according to one study, by increasing inflammation in the brain. "Neuroinflammation stands out as a hallmark feature of brain disorders," the study found, and this inflammation is primarily driven up by eating junk food.

To improve mood, focus on diet, sleep, and exercise, a new study shows

Other than eating more whole plant-based foods and avoiding sugar, sat fat (in meat and dairy) and caffeine, if you're already a stress bucket, the two most important factors for mental health are exercise and better sleep. Physical activity is beneficial by creating “feel good” endorphins in the brain and lowering inflammation in the body, while sleep is critical to let your mind recharge, reset and do all the important housekeeping tasks of sorting and compartmentalizing everything that happened that day. Studies have shown even partial sleep deprivation can have a detrimental aspect on your mood, according to Harvard Health.

Now a brand new study from the University of Otago in New Zealand found that for improved mental health, you need to prioritize sleep, daily exercise, and a healthy diet, which work together to help your brain and emotional health be more resilient.

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Sleep, Exercise, and Diet on Mental Health

The study surveyed over 1,100 young adults from both New Zealand and the United States regarding their sleep, physical activity, diet, and mental health. The results found that sleep quality was the strongest predictor of depressive symptoms and well-being. This was followed by sleep quantity and physical activity. When it came to diet, raw fruit and vegetable consumption improved well-being in participants.

The strongest predictor of mental health problems was sleep quality, which was an unexpected finding, the researchers said. “This is surprising because sleep recommendations predominantly focus on quantity rather than quality,” says lead author, Shay-Ruby Wickham, in an interview. “While we did see that both too little sleep — less than eight hours — and too much sleep — more than 12 hours — was associated with higher depressive symptoms and lower well-being, sleep quality significantly outranked sleep quantity in predicting mental health and well-being.”

Exercising and eating more raw fruits and vegetables were next on the list of importance for improving mental health and well-being in adults. The study found that those who ate 4.8 servings of raw fruit and vegetables each day had the highest well-being. When 2 servings or less were eaten, there were 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,” comments Wickham in the same interview.

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How to get better quality sleep to improve your mental health

Although you may be in bed at night for 8 hours, you still need to consider the quality of those 8 hours. According to the Sleep Foundation, there are signs that may indicate your sleep quality isn’t the best. This includes:

  • It takes you more than 30 minutes to fall asleep after you’re in bed
  • You wake up more than once per night regularly
  • You stay awake for more than 20 minutes when you wake up in the night
  • You feel tired and have trouble concentrating the next day
  • You feel more stressed
  • Your skin breaks out and/or your eyes develop dark circles

Fortunately, there are tips and good practices to try out in order to improve your sleep quality. The Sleep Foundation recommends first starting with a “sleep-inducing” bedroom. This includes getting a quality mattress, pillow, and bedsheets. You also want to ensure your bedroom isn’t bringing in too much light, which can be prevented by blackout curtains or a sleep mask.

From there, get a sleep schedule determined. This includes setting up a fixed wake-up time and ensuring that you have budgeted enough time for sleep to ensure you’re getting the recommended amount of sleep each night based on that wake-up time. If you’re a nap lover, be careful that you aren’t taking one for too long or too late in the day which can make it harder to get to sleep at night when you want to.

What you do during the day can also help you wind down at night and get a solid amount of sleep. If you find time to move, but not too close to bedtime, you can initiate changes in energy use and body temperature that promote good quality sleep. Other tips include:

  • Getting light exposure
  • Limiting caffeine intake
  • Not eating too late
  • Cut down on alcohol near bedtime
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Eating more fruits and vegetables is linked to better mental health

Although all fruits and vegetables are important for an overall healthy diet, there may be a few that have the leg up compared to others when it comes to brain health.

Research indicates that berries (such as blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries) have high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. This is due to the number of polyphenols, such as flavonoids, that can protect against brain aging and neurodegenerative disorders. A study found that a specific flavonoid found in berries called anthocyanidins may improve mental decline since it has the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier. Women who ate two servings of strawberries or one serving of blueberries each week had less mental decline over time compared to those that didn’t eat these berries.

When it comes to veggies, reach for the green, leafy kinds. This includes spinach, kale, romaine, and cabbage. One study found that the consumption of 1 serving of green leafy vegetables per day could help to slow cognitive decline due to their primary nutrients such as vitamin K, folate, beta carotene, and lutein.
Bottom line: New research indicates that good quality of sleep, physical exercise, and a diet high in raw fruits and vegetables can help limit depressive symptoms and improve your mental health and wellbeing.