We are often reminded that exercise, good nutrition and enough sleep are good for your physical and mental health. Those are among the lifestyle aspects that are part of an approach to psychiatry called lifestyle psychiatry.
Lifestyle psychiatry focuses on addressing psychiatric disorders through an integrated, holistic approach to health, which includes recommendations for exercise, diet, sleep and mindfulness practice for helping people manage their psychiatric disorders. While these ideas are not new, research continues to expand our understanding of how different aspects of lifestyle can help prevent and treat mental health conditions.
Douglas L. Noordsy, M.D., psychiatrist and clinical professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, notes in his recent book Lifestyle Psychiatry that lifestyle interventions can complement traditional treatments, such as medication and psychotherapy. They can help improve mood, address problems with thinking and memory and help reduce symptoms of mental illness.
One of the key areas of focus is physical activity. Physical activity has been shown in numerous studies to help people with depression. It can also improve psychiatric symptoms, improve functioning and help prevent other medical conditions. Even small amounts of activity may help. Aerobic exercise can improve brain function in people with mental health conditions. Physical activity is also associated with improved attention in people with ADHD, can help improve mental functioning in people with Alzheimer’s disease and can help in maintaining recovery from substance use.
Diet and nutrition can affect the risk for many psychiatric disorders. It can impact mental health through the microbiome (the connection between the gut and the brain), through neuroinflammation (inflammation in the brain and spinal cord), and through the impact of individual nutrients. For example, a Mediterranean style diet, high in plant-based foods and omega-3 fatty acids, is linked to lower risk of depression, ADHD and dementia.
Sleep is another lifestyle component that can impact mental health. Mental health conditions can cause sleep problems and sleep problems can increase the risk for mental health conditions and worsen symptoms. Noordsy notes that effectively managing sleep has many benefits—it can help reduce the use of medication and can contribute, along with other lifestyle changes, to more energy, better performance, improved mood and ability to think and cope.
Lifestyle psychiatry also involves incorporating the known benefits of practices such as yoga, tai chi, mindfulness and meditation in preventing and reducing mental health symptoms.
Of course, knowing what lifestyle approaches are good for you is very different than having the motivation and persistence to carry them out. Noordsy acknowledges the many challenges and barriers to making lifestyle changes and lays out a plan for identifying and addressing barriers, setting goals and tracking progress. He also suggests that when we make improvements in one area of lifestyle (such as exercise), it can provide incentive and motivation to make changes in other areas.
Noordsy, DL. (editor) Lifestyle Psychiatry. American Psychiatric Association Publishing. 2019.