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Lifestyle Habits Can Impact Risk of Depression

In a recent interview on NPR, Dr. Barbara Sahakian of the University of Cambridge discussed recent work  examining lifestyle, health, and genetic factors associated with depression. As published in Nature Mental Health, and using data collected over nine years for a sample of nearly 300,000 people, Dr. Sahakian and colleagues found that engaging in at least five of the following seven lifestyle habits was associated in a 57% reduction in risk of developing depression.

1. Sleep impacts many aspects of functioning including memory consolidation, immune system support, and emotion regulation. Averaging seven to nine hours of sleep per night resulted in the greatest risk reduction for depression.

2. Exercise. Regular exercise is associated with increased mood, fewer mental health symptoms, and improved overall health. Other studies have supported the conclusion that, for some, regular exercise can be more effective at reducing depressive symptoms than medication, and has a more durable effect.

3. Diet. Incorporating a range of nutrient-rich foods is associated with depressive symptoms. Dr. Sahakian recommends a diet primarily comprised of produce, whole grains, and lean proteins. Some foods to limit include refined carbohydrates, highly processed foods, and products high in sugar.

4. Limit alcohol. Consuming one or fewer drinks per day for women, or two or fewer drinks per day for men, can reduce risk of depression.

5. Abstain from tobacco. People in the study who had never smoked had a lower risk of depression. Like alcohol, regular nicotine use impacts the central nervous system and limbic system. Use of nicotine may blunt affective experiences, emotional processing, and development of coping strategies.

6. Move often. More sedentary behavior is associated with increased risk of depression, regardless of exercise habits. Limiting the time spent sitting is important to prevent depression. One way to do this is to decrease daily screen time.

7. Social Connection. Frequent social connections reduced the risk of depression. Other studies suggest that social isolation increases the risk of dementia, as well as depression. Sharing enjoyable activities provides a social connection. In separate research, engaging in hobbies has been shown to boost mood, increase creativity, increase life satisfaction, and lead to relaxation.

The Wellness Self-Care Program at the Rutgers University Center of Alcohol and Substance Use Studies (CAS) has developed a Wellness Self-Care Plan to help you create and sustain many of these health habits and more. In addition, a series of wellness self-care resources provide free downloadable information and tips to help people to create and sustain these lifestyle habits. More wellness-related resources are also available through the Wellness in Recovery tab on the CAS website.


Zhao, Y., Yang, L., Sahakian, B.J. et al. (2023, September 11). The brain structure, immunometabolic and genetic mechanisms underlying the association between lifestyle and depression. Nature Mental Health (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s44220-023-00120-1