Staying healthy through regular exercise and eating the right foods can improve your mood and the quality of your sleep. Sleep and mood are closely connected; poor or inadequate sleep can cause irritability and stress. On the flip side, stress can cause poor or inadequate sleep. This type of interdependent relationship creates the risk of falling into a vicious cycle of poor quality sleep and negative mood. How can one avoid this debilitating cycle? The most recent scientific research suggests a direct link between mood and food. Exercise and healthy eating can be used as powerful tools to improve mood and sleep quality.


How does exercise help improve my mood?


When you are feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed, exercise is often the last thing you will think of, but that is probably the time when your brain needs it the most. Once you manage to motivate yourself to get up and move, physical activity can have a major impact on reducing symptoms of anxiety and improving mood.


From a physiological standpoint, research has demonstrated that exercise increases the release of endorphins and neurotransmitters that activate the pleasure centers in our brain, giving us an immediate sense of satisfaction and well-being. Moreover, a depressive state can cause a chronic increase in the levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. Exercise can help break the depressive state and eliminate chronic elevation of cortisol.


From a psychological standpoint, exercise can also boost self-confidence, through consistent goal striving and achievement, as well as through improvements in our physical appearance. Anxiety and depression are often a result of a cycle of negative thoughts, exercise can serve as a daily distraction that will break this cycle. While researchers have yet to discover all of the physical and psychological benefits of exercise, it is slowly becoming clearer that a healthy mind exists in a healthy body.


How does exercise improve the quality of my sleep?


The direct improvement in mood that results from exercise can have far reaching benefits on an individual’s lifestyle. Exercise induced improvements in mood and anxiety are closely related to improvements in sleep quality. A recent study demonstrated that people sleep significantly better and feel more alert during the day if they follow the national guideline of at least 150 minutes of exercise per week, that’s less than 25 minutes of exercise per day. The study was based on a national sample of 2,600 men and women of all ages. The results showed a 65 percent of the sample showed improvement in sleep quality and felt less sleepy during the day Recent studies have shown that about 40 percent of Americans have problems falling asleep or with daytime sleepiness. If you are among that 40 percent, then perhaps exercise and improving your physical health can be a long-term solution that doesn’t involve the use of prescription drugs.


What does food have to do with this?


There is a growing body of evidence in the scientific community that diet and choices of food will affect mood and sleep quality. The entire relationship has yet to be uncovered, but we can say with certainty that dietary changes bring about chemical and physiological changes in the brain, which lead to changes in behavior, in this case mood and sleeping habits.


Eating a well balanced diet consisting of protein and non-processed carbohydrates can lead to more tryptophan entering the brain. Tryptophan is a non-essential amino acid that increases serotonin production in the brain, which is responsible for regulating our mood and keeping us happy. Many extreme low carb diets and calorie-depleted diets don’t allow for adequate nutritional intake, which can cause constant feelings of lethargy and increased irritability regardless of how much you sleep.


Another great nutrient that can improve mood is omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid, which is found in fish, walnuts, and flaxseeds. Omega-3 is known to function similar to an insulator that facilitates neural transmission in the brain, thereby making your brain function optimally. Studies on depression have suggested a lack of omega-3 metabolism among those with depressive symptoms. The same has been shown in studies that examined the role of folate, vitamin B-12, and vitamin D, three nutrients that when lacking are associated with increased rates of depression. Folate can be found in legumes, nuts, and dark green vegetables. Vitamin B-12 can be found in all low fat animal products, and vitamin D can be found fortified milk or from sunlight. These food suggestions explain the recent trend towards Mediterranean style diets to improve mood and overall health.


As you can see there are many nutrients that are essential towards your mind functioning optimally. The best advice towards using food to keep you happy and sleeping well is to stick to high quality, non-processed foods, and to ensure a variety of food sources. Of course when this practice is adopted in conjunction with exercise, one can benefit maximally from a healthy mind in a healthy body.