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Steps to good mental health

How does what I eat and drink affect my mental health?

The foods you eat and what you drink can have a direct effect on your energy levels and mood. Researchers think that eating healthier foods can have a positive effect on your mood.1

  • Getting the right balance of nutrients, including enough fiber and water, can help your mood stay stable. Sugary, processed foods increase your blood sugar and then make you feel tired and irritable when your blood sugar levels drop.
  • Some vitamins and minerals may help with the symptoms of depression. Experts are researching how a lack of some nutrients is linked to depression in new mothers. These include selenium, omega-3 fatty acids, folate, vitamin B12, calcium, iron, and zinc.2
  • Drinking too much alcohol can lead to mental and physical health problems.
  • Drinks with caffeine can make it harder for you to sleep, which can make some mental health conditions worse. Also, drinking caffeine regularly and then suddenly stopping can cause caffeine withdrawal, which can make you irritable and give you headaches.3 Don’t have drinks with caffeine within 5 hours of going to sleep.

Eating nutritious foods may not cure a mental health condition, but eating healthy is a good way to start feeling better. Ask your doctor or nurse for more information about the right foods to eat to help keep your mind and body healthy. You can also visit one of these sites for healthy and free recipe ideas and meal plans:

How does physical activity affect my mental health?

Physical activity can help your mental health in several ways:

  • Aerobic exercise can boost your mood. Your body makes certain chemicals, called endorphins, during and after your workout. Endorphins relieve stress and make you feel calmer.
  • Getting physical activity during the day can make it easier to sleep at night.4 Creating a routine can help you stay motivated and build a habit of getting regular physical activity.5
  • Physical activity may help with depression and anxiety symptoms.6 Studies show that regular aerobic exercise boosts your mood and lowers anxiety and depression.7
  • Physical activity may help slow or stop weight gain, which is a common side effect of some medicines used to treat mental health conditions.

Regular physical activity can benefit your health over the long term. Getting active every day (at least 30 minutes a day of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, like brisk walking) helps maintain your health. All Americans should also do strengthening exercises at least 2 days a week to build and maintain muscles.8 Your doctor or nurse may recommend exercise in addition to taking medicine and getting counseling for mental health conditions.

Learn more about how to be active for health.

How does aging affect my mental health?

As you age, your body and brain change. These changes can affect your physical and mental health. Older women may face more stressful living or financial situations than men do, because women live longer on average. They may also have spent more time staying home to raise children or care for loved ones instead of working outside of the home.

In the years leading up to menopause (perimenopause), women may experience shifts in mood because of hormone changes. They may also experience hot flashes, problems sleeping, and other symptoms that can make it harder to deal with stress or other life changes.

Learn more about how aging and menopause affect your mental health.

How does my physical health affect my mental health?

People who are not physically healthy may have trouble staying mentally healthy. People living with chronic (long-term) health problems such as diabetes and heart disease are often more likely to have higher stress levels, depression, and anxiety.9 Researchers are not sure which problems happen first, but many people have a chronic disease and a mental health condition. Having a chronic disease does not always mean you will have a mental health condition, but if you are struggling with both, know that you are not alone. Support groups and health care professionals can help. Healthy habits, like eating healthy and getting exercise, that help improve many chronic diseases may also help improve mental health conditions.

How does smoking, drinking alcohol, or misusing drugs affect mental health?

The chemicals in tobacco and alcohol can change the chemicals in your brain, making you more likely to feel depressed or anxious.10,11 People with mental health conditions are also more likely to smoke and drink alcohol.

Using illegal drugs, or misusing prescription drugs, is also linked to mental health conditions. Researchers are not sure whether drugs can cause mental health conditions, whether mental health conditions cause addiction, or whether both are linked to another health problem. People who have experienced trauma, whether physical or emotional (or both), are more likely to misuse drugs and alcohol.

How do traumatic or negative childhood events affect mental health?

Two out of every 3 women have experienced at least one serious traumatic or negative event during childhood, increasing their risk of adult health problems, including mental health conditions.12

  • Traumatic events can include physical or sexual abuse, neglect, bullying, neighborhood violence, natural disasters, terrorism, and war. While many people in the United States experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime, most don’t suffer long-term problems as a result.
  • Negative events during childhood can include abuse (physical, emotional, verbal, or sexual), neglect, or a problem with an adult in the home, such as seeing domestic violence or having a caregiver go to prison. The more negative childhood events you have experienced, the higher your risk of a serious health problem as an adult. Learn more about negative (adverse) childhood events.

Women are more likely than men to experience certain types of trauma, such as sexual abuse or assault, and are at higher risk of developing a mental health condition.

What else can affect my mental health?

Mental health conditions affect women of all races and ethnicities. But your environment where and how you live — can have an effect on your mental health. Women who grew up in poverty or who live in poverty as adults and women in a sexual minority (such as women who identify as lesbian or bisexual) may be more likely to experience mental health conditions, such as depression.13

  • Some studies show that children who grow up in poverty can have a higher risk of developing certain mental health conditions, including depression and posttraumatic stress disorder, as adults.14
  • Children who witness domestic violence (also called intimate partner violence) are more likely to develop mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, as adults. Learn more about the effects of domestic violence on children.15
  • Lesbians and bisexual women are at higher risk of mood and anxiety disorders than heterosexual women.16

Do past or current difficulties in life mean I’ll develop a mental health condition?

No. Many people experience major stress in life, including poverty, unemployment, trauma, abuse, family difficulties, or chronic health problems. Experiencing these stressful situations does not mean you will definitely develop a mental health condition. But if you do experience serious, stressful situations and develop a mental health condition, know that it is not your fault. You can get help and treatment for mental health conditions.

Learning ways to manage stress and reaching out for help when you need it can help you protect your mental health. Learn more about steps you can take to protect your mental health.

Did we answer your question about supporting mental health?

For more information about good mental health, call the OWH Helpline at 1-800-994-9662 or check out the following resources from other organizations:


  1. Bodnar, L.M., Wisner, K.L. (2005). Nutrition and Depression: Implications for Improving Mental Health Among Childbearing-Aged Women. Biological Psychiatry; 58(9): 679–685.
  2. Leung, B.M.Y., Kaplan, B.J., Field, C.J., Tough, S., Eliasziw, E., Fajer Gomez, M., et al. (2013). Prenatal micronutrient supplementation and postpartum depressive symptoms in a pregnancy cohort. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth; 13: 2.
  3. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Caffeine withdrawal. In: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.
  4. Otto, M.W., Smits, J.A.J. (2011). Exercise for Mood and Anxiety, Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well-Being. Cambridge, MA: Oxford University Press.
  5. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Creating a Healthier Life: A Step-by-Step Guide to Wellness (PDF, 387 KB). HHS Publication No. SMA 16-4958. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
  6. Mota-Pereira, J., Silverio, J., Carvalho, S., Ribeiro, J.C., Fonte, D., Ramos. J. (2011). Moderate exercise improves depression parameters in treatment-resistant patients with major depressive disorder. Journal of Psychiatric Research; 45(8): 1005–1011.
  7. DiLorenzo, T.M., Bargman, E.P., Stucky-Ropp, R., Brassington, G.S., Frensch, P.A., LaFontaine, T. (1999). Long-Term Effects of Aerobic Exercise on Psychological Outcomes. Preventive Medicine; 28(1): 75–85.
  8. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2008). Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
  9. Turner, J., Kelly, B. (2000). Emotional dimensions of chronic disease. The Western Journal of Medicine; 172(2): 124–128.
  10. Shivani, R., Goldsmith, J.R., Anthenelli, R.M. (2002). Alcoholism and Psychiatric Disorders. Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
  11. Weir, K. (2013). Smoking and mental illness. American Psychological Association; 44(6). Print version: page 36.
  12. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Kaiser Permanente. (2016). About the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study. Atlanta, GA: CDC.
  13. Brody, D.J., Pratt, L.A., Hughes, J. (2018). Prevalence of depression among adults aged 20 and over: United States, 2013–2016. NCHS Data Brief, no 303. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.
  14. Nikulina, V., Widom, C.S., Czaja, S. (2011). The Role of Childhood Neglect and Childhood Poverty in Predicting Mental Health, Academic Achievement and Crime in Adulthood. American Journal of Community Psychology; 48(3–4): 309–321.
  15. Monnat, S.M., Chandler, R.F. (2015). Long Term Physical Health Consequences of Adverse Childhood Experiences. Sociology Quarterly; 56(4): 723–752.
  16. Bostwick, W.B., Boyd, C.J., Hughes, T.L., McCabe, S.E. (2010). Dimensions of Sexual Orientation and the Prevalence of Mood and Anxiety Disorders in the United States. American Journal of Public Health; 100(3): 468–475.