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  • Samantha Boardman M.D

7 Habits That Could Cut the Risk of Depression in Half

"Lifestyle medicine" can be as powerful as prescriptions"

7 Habits That Could Cut the Risk of Depression in Half

  • New research makes it clear that daily habits can boost or diminish mental health.

  • A healthier lifestyle can ward off depression, even in those with genetic predisposition.

“We are what we repeatedly do.” —Aristotle

Your answers to these seven questions have serious implications for your mental health:

  1. Do you get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night?

  2. How much junk food do you consume?

  3. Do you make time for friends and family?

  4. Do you exercise regularly?

  5. How many hours a day do you sit at your desk?

  6. Do you smoke cigarettes?

  7. How much alcohol do you consume?

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A new study published in Nature Mental Health found that a healthy lifestyle can prevent depression, even in those who have a genetic predisposition.

While pharmaceutical advertisements have led many to believe that major depressive disorder is caused by a lack of neurotransmitters, it has become increasingly clear that depression is much more than a chemical imbalance. Remember the classic Zoloft commercial from the early 2000s showing a sad blob with a cloud following it around?

The voiceover explains: “While the cause is unknown, depression may be related to an imbalance of natural chemicals between nerve cells in the brain. Prescription Zoloft works to correct this imbalance.”

Zoloft transforms the sad blob into a smiling blob and the cloud literally dissipates. More recent evidence paints a more complicated picture that debunks this model: Antidepressant medications work for some people, but not because they correct a chemical imbalance. What remains unclear is exactly how they work.

What is clear is how daily habits can boost mental health. Researchers examined data from almost 290,000 people—of whom 13,000 had depression—over a nine-year period, and identified seven healthy lifestyle behaviors linked with a lower risk of depression:

1. Prioritize sleep. Sleeping seven to nine hours per night reduced the risk of depression including single depressive episodes and treatment-resistant depression by 22 percent. Of all the depression-reducing factors, getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis made the biggest difference.

2. Cultivate connections. Frequent social connection reduced the risk of depression by 18 percent and was the most protective against recurrent depressive disorder. Put simply, happiness doesn’t only come from within, it also comes from “with.”

3. Drink less. Moderate alcohol consumption decreased the risk of depression by 11 percent. Less is clearly more. Greater than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men can actually increase the risk of depression.

4. Eat well. Refined carbs, processed foods, and sugary drinks are bad for the body and the brain. People who maintained a healthy diet were 6 percent less likely to report an episode of depression. Increasing evidence shows that the Mediterranean diet can boost mood and dial down symptoms of depression and anxiety.

5. Move regularly. Frequent exercise can improve daily mood and also cut one's risk of depression by 14 percent. A related study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that physical activity was 1.5 times more effective than medication in reducing depression. Not surprisingly, the sports that give people the biggest boost typically involve others—tennis, soccer, and other team-related activities.

6. Don’t smoke. Never smoking decreased the risk of depression by 20 percent. Enough said.

7. Get up, stand up. A sedentary lifestyle was considered independent of exercise. Taking breaks and stepping away from screens regularly reduced the chances of depression by 13 percent. If you’re reading this sitting down, please stand up and stretch.

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These lifestyle factors are more than icing on the cake. I would argue that they are the cake. People who maintained most of these seven healthy habits—five or more—had a 57% lower risk of depression. We all know that a healthy lifestyle is important for our physical health. It’s just as important for our mental health.

Bottom Line: While many with depression benefit from medication and therapy, lifestyle medicine can make a meaningful difference in reducing symptoms and preventing them altogether.

Samantha Boardman, M.D., - Website -


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