Sleep, Exercise or Diet? One big factor that affects your Mental Health

Written by Nectarsleep Editorial Team

Last updated on Sep 08, 2023

Better Sleep Blog
Sleep, Exercise or Diet?  One big factor that affects your Mental Health

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With worries about COVID-19 continuing into 2021, it's no surprise mental health remains a focus for many of us. How do we easily improve our mental health without adding to the list of things to worry about? Thankfully a recent study from New Zealand offers helpful insight into how to make a real difference. What is most important for our mental health?

Ruby Wickham, a graduate student at the University Of Otago in New Zealand writes that there are three pillars to mental health:

             1. Sleep

            2. Exercise

            3. Diet

Her study quickly concluded that they're important to us in that order: good sleep first, then regular exercise and then a healthy diet.

Sleep Quantity VS Sleep Quality

What's much more interesting is that she found that it's sleep quality that is more important for maintaining good mental health than the amount of sleep.

“This is surprising because sleep recommendations predominantly focus on quantity rather than quality,” Wickham says. “While we 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… sleep quality significantly outranked sleep quantity in predicting mental health and well-being.”

The study was carried out on more than 1000 adults, aged 18 to 25 who were asked about how much they slept and how well they slept, as well as information about exercise and dietary habits. They were then asked to complete a questionnaire to gauge their mental health including whether they felt depressed or positive

Sleep quality and quantity were found to be the strongest lifestyle predictors of depression, that is people who had better sleep quality, and those who slept inside the range of eight to 12 hours per night reported fewer symptoms of depression. Overall though it was sleep quality that “significantly outranked” other health behaviours linked to mental health and well-being.

A separate study from the University of California, Berkeley also found that just one sleepless night can trigger up to a 30% rise in anxiety levels.

So good sleep is a key factor in your mental well-being but it's quality, not quantity that we should be focusing on.

How To Get Good Quality Sleep

Our sleep experts had these tips to share on how to improve the quality of sleep.

Stick to one sleep schedule: Keep the same bedtime and wake-up time, even on the weekends. This keeps your circadian rhythm consistent and makes it easier to fall asleep, said Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist and a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

1. Avoid caffeine after 2pm

This strong stimulant continues to impact your body for six to eight hours after you ingest it so if you stop drinking in the afternoon, you'll still feel the effects of it in the evening. Drinking it later may not stop you from getting to sleep but it can affect the quality of your sleep and make it more likely that you wake up during the night.

2. Don’t drink alcohol before bed

Alcohol may make you feel drowsy when you drink it but similar to caffeine it keeps you out of the deeper stages of sleep and disrupts your quality of sleep. We suggest waiting at least one hour per alcoholic drink that you have before going to bed.

3. Don’t eat too late

Your body digesting a big dinner will also stop you from getting quality sleep. The National Sleep Foundation says that you should be eating meals at least two to three hours before bedtime.

4. Exercise is good, but not before bed

Exercise is good for tiring your body and helping to bring on deep, quality sleep - just don’t do it right before bedtime as your body needs time to relax from it's heightened state of activity.

5. Limit screen time before bed

This is a big one to be aware of when we're spending more time at home. The constant scrolling through social network posts and light from your phone keep your brain awake and will stop you from falling asleep and reduce the quality of your sleep. Don't bring your devices to bed, leave them completely out of the bedroom.

6. Get morning light

Don't stay in bed with the blinds closed after waking up. Get up and let the sunlight in. This helps your internal body clock and sleep-wake cycle running normally. Cortisol, a stress hormone, has been linked to sleep disruption but exposure to sunlight in the early part of the day drastically reduces these nighttime cortisol levels.

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