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New Research Specifies How Young Adults Can Best Protect Mental Health

Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen, the co-author of "The Spirit Almanac," and the author of "Return to Nature" (Spring 2022).
(Last Used: 1/7/21) New Research Specifies How Young Adults Can Best Protect Mental Health
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While COVID-19 hasn't been easy on anyone, young people, in particular, are struggling with mental health during the pandemic. Research from Mental Health America found that 9.7% of youth in the U.S. showed symptoms of severe depression in 2020, compared to 9.2% in 2019.

While some contributors to depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders are out of our control, new research identifies which healthy behavior could be most beneficial for young adults looking to protect their mental health through the pandemic and beyond.

Ranking the "big three" health behaviors.

For this new research, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology in December, psychology researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand studied what they referred to as the "big three" health behaviors: sleep, physical activity, and diet. Previous research has confirmed that these three buckets affect mental health. This team wanted to take this a step further to see which one had the most significant impact on depressive symptoms, at least in young adults.

The Otago team surveyed 1,111 young adults ages 18 to 25 who lived in either New Zealand or the U.S. The cohort was a mix of college-attending and non-college-attending men and women, nearly 70% of whom were free of diagnosed health conditions. At the time of study, 20% were on antidepressants.

They were all instructed to take an online survey that asked about their sleep quantity and quality, physical activity, and diet. After answering these questions, they ranked their level of depression—based on feelings of sadness, loneliness, insignificance, etc.—and well-being—based on feelings of purpose, meaning, and engagement in everyday life.


The findings confirm a mental health crisis among young adults but provide some clues on the way forward.

On average, those surveyed had an average depression score of 19, with scores over 16 corresponding to an increased risk of clinical depression.

After controlling for outside contributors to depression—such as socioeconomic status, demographics, etc.—the team found that sleep, specifically sleep quality, most significantly correlated to depressive symptoms and well-being. It was followed by sleep quantity and physical activity. "Only one dietary factor—raw fruit and vegetable consumption—predicted greater well-being but not depressive symptoms when controlling for covariates," the study reads.

The survey measured sleep quality with the question, "When you wake up from sleeping, how refreshed do you feel?" and sleep quantity with the question, "In a typical week, how many hours do you usually sleep per night?" In this study, anything less than eight hours was considered too little sleep, and more than 12 hours was too much. Generally, sleep quality is measured by the amount of time spent in two sleep phases: REM sleep (ideally at least 20 to 25% of sleeping hours) and deep sleep (ideally at least 15 to 20% of sleeping hours).

Since this was a correlational study, it's difficult to prove whether poor sleep quality led to an increased risk of depression or the other way around; an increase in depressive symptoms worsened sleep quality. However, the researchers write that "evidence shows that disrupted sleep more often precedes the onset of depression in young adults and that intervening to change health behaviors results in improvements to mental health and well-being."

The broader takeaway.

While this research focused on young adults, its message to prioritize high-quality sleep for the sake of mental health is relevant for any age group. Sleep quality often diminishes as we get older, and rates of insomnia and sleep issues are high across the entire population (especially in COVID times).

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To have more consistently restful sleep, experts recommend cutting distractions in your bedroom, reducing screen time at night, starting and sticking to a wind-down routine, maintaining a steady sleep schedule (even on weekends!), and avoiding alcohol and heavy meals before bed. You might also find success with a sleep supplement.* Melatonin is a popular pick for cueing the body that it's time to go to sleep, making it good for those who often travel to new time zones or keep wonky sleep schedules. Magnesium is often the better choice for all-around sleep quality since it's more effective at leading to longer, deeper sleep.*

The world outside our bedrooms may be unpredictable, but prioritizing high-quality sleep can make us feel more equipped to handle everything it throws our way.


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