What if logging a few extra hours of sleep could lead to a better, happier outlook on life? Individuals who sleep between 7-9 hours each night just might find out. A new study from the Journal Nature Mental Health investigated the effect of seven lifestyle factors on depression risk. (1) The study looked at UK Biobank data from almost 300,000 individuals and used a technique called Mendelian Randomization, which uses genetics to study behavior. Researchers confirmed a causal link between seven lifestyle choices and a lower risk of depression, particularly when it comes to sleep. Interestingly, the connection held up even among individuals who had a genetic disposition to depression.
The researchers looked into seven variables including sleep, exercise, healthy diet, not smoking, limiting alcohol, cutting back on screen time, and cultivating a robust social network. Individuals who adhered to most of the healthy lifestyle choices (at least 5 out of 7) had a 57 percent reduction in depression risk. While all factors play a role, the most important of these lifestyle choices appears to be sleep. By getting the recommended amount of sleep, you’ll not only be reducing your chance of depression by about 22 percent, but you’ll also be shoring up your immune system and guarding against chronic diseases.
Luke Allen, PhD a licensed psychologist and a founder of The Foundation For Change agrees that adequate sleep is important for mental health. Allen says, “Good quality sleep plays a clear role in preventing depression (and other mental health disorders). The beneficial effects of good sleep and exercise on mental health are incredibly robust.” (2)
He explains, “Research consistently shows that poor sleep quality and insufficient sleep duration are associated with an increased risk of developing depression. Lack of sleep or sleep disturbances disrupt the brain’s emotional regulation and increase vulnerability to negative emotions, which are key factors in depression. Adequate sleep helps restore cognitive processes and emotional resilience, making it easier to cope with stress and adversity.”
Dr. Brian Gans, a double board certified physician in Internal Medicine and Palliative Medicine agrees that good sleep is increasingly being recognized as an essential component of mental health. Gans says, “Sleep plays a critical role in regulating neurotransmitters and hormones that affect mood, including serotonin. An imbalance in serotonin levels is often linked with depression.” (3) Additionally, Gans remarks, “A lack of sleep can hamper cognitive functions like memory, attention, and problem-solving, which can make dealing with everyday life stressful and overwhelming, potentially leading to depression.”
It’s clear from the research that sleep is important, but actually getting good quality shuteye can be a bit more challenging. If you’re struggling to get the right amount of sleep, there are a number of steps you can take including maintaining a good bedtime routine, waking up at a consistent time, practicing meditation, and setting up a cool and calm sleeping environment.
And although there are a number of things demanding your time and energy, it’s important to truly prioritize healthy habits. Allen advises his clients to think of their well-being as a set of buckets or a wellness piggy bank. He says, “Each night of good sleep, like a coin in the piggy bank, adds to your emotional resilience. Regular exercise deposits energy into your physical and mental health buckets, while spending time in social relationships contributes to your emotional well-being bucket.” Continuing with the piggy bank metaphor, Gans points out that it’s equally important to continue filling it up regularly, so it’s always full. Consistency can be just as important, meaning snagging 7-9 hours should ideally happen most nights.
While some individuals will always need medication and therapy to effectively manage depression symptoms, this study shows that environmental factors can also play a part. In addition to improving mental health outcomes, adopting positive habits can also lead to better physical health outcomes. Try hitting the sheets a bit earlier tonight and your mind (and body) will thank you.
1. Zhao, Y., Yang, L., Sahakian, B.J. et al. The brain structure, immunometabolic and genetic mechanisms underlying the association between lifestyle and depression. Nat. Mental Health (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s44220-023-00120-1
2. Allen, Luke. Author interview. September 2023.
3. Gans, Brian. Author interview. September 2023.