We all know the big things that affect your mental health; life events, past trauma, and family history are all important considerations in whether you develop a psychiatric disorder down the line. That being said, though, many people overlook the everyday factors — can something as ordinary as how often you hit the gym have an effect on your mental health? As you've no doubt guessed by now, the answer to that particular question is a resounding "yes." Researchers have known for some time now that exercise is linked to a whole range of mental health benefits: Improved concentration, deeper sleep, and even better memory.
Although the mental benefits of exercise are well-documented, their causes are still unclear. Fortunately, recent research published in the Journal of Neuroscience sheds some light on the issue. Researchers in the UC Davis Health System used imaging techniques to take a look at the brains of 38 healthy volunteers, comparing the neurotransmitter levels of participants who performed vigorous exercise to a control group who remained stationary. After each of the three sessions, researchers found that levels of the neurotransmitters glutamate and GABA increased, especially in areas associated with heart rate and emotion — but only for the exercise group.
These levels decreased over time, but researchers found that the amount of the neurotransmitters already present in the brain was correlated with how much someone exercised each week. In other words, exercise activity was linked to increased resting levels of certain transmitters.
These findings could explain why regular exercise is linked to improved mood for those with mild to moderate depression; they also have important implications for psychiatric disorders associated with neurotransmitter imbalances, especially depression. "Not every depressed person who exercises will improve, but many will," lead researcher Richard Maddock said in Science Daily. "It's possible that we can help identify the patients who would most benefit from an exercise prescription."
Clearly, exercise is important in maintaining mental health, but it's not the only factor. Let's take a look at eight everyday things that affect your mental health below.
Who knew your caffeine addiction could turn out to be so useful? Research has linked caffeine consumption, and coffee in particular, to everything from reduced risk for Alzheimer's and dementia to staving off depression in women. That being said, this isn't an excuse to drink that eighth cup you've been eyeing — caffeine can also stimulate anxiety and stress.
Due to a number of factors including societal pressures, certain mental health issues affect women more than men, and vice versa. Research indicates that women tend to have more internal disorders (think depression or anxiety), while men are more likely to have external ones like substance abuse.
3. Going Outside
Most of us go outside when the weather is nice, but research shows that it's important to get fresh air no matter how tempting it is to stay cooped up inside. Light tends to improve people's mood, and tearing yourself away from Netflix makes you more likely to get some exercise.
4. Social Media Use
Although social media may not deserve its bad reputation, heavy social media use (defined as more than two hours per day) has been linked to poor mental health. However, there's also research showing that it depends on how you use it — if you don't use it to torture yourself with FOMO, there's even evidence social media might make you happy.
6. Economic Status
The link between economic status and happiness is well established: Poverty is associated with increased stress and higher rates of mental illness, while studies have shown that money really does make you happier, up to a point.
It's probably no surprise that friendships are hugely important to mental health, but there's evidence that maintaining relationships may even extend your life span. In contrast, loneliness is no fun for anyone — all the more reason to celebrate Galentine's Day next year.
Although dieting won't make you happy (quite the opposite, in all likelihood), studies have shown that good nutrition is important in maintaining mental health. People who eat fresh fruit or vegetables every day report fewer daily mental health problems, and there's evidence for a link between poor nutrition and higher prevalence of psychiatric disorders. However, it's possible that people with psychiatric disorders don't eat healthily in the first place, rather than poor nutrition exacerbating the condition — and no diet is going to improve your mental health on its own.