Ashok J Bharucha, a psychiatrist from Lackawanna County, PA, believes physical health and mental health are two sides of the same coin. In other words, physical health affects mental health and vice versa. Considerable research over the decades has established this reciprocal relationship.
Physical health affects a person’s well-being in a variety of ways. Those who are physically healthy tend to have better body image, self-esteem, and sense of control or self-direction in life. Physical activity causes release of endogenous opioids that create a sense of well-being, reduce stress, and attenuate inflammatory processes that are implicated in the pathophysiology of a host of physical and mental health issues.
Here are a few of the ways your physical health affects your mental well-being.
Calmer and Less Stressed
Regular exercisers tend to be less stressed than those who never work out or do so infrequently. Stress reduction and energy expenditure reduces tension, enhances well-being, and improves the quality of sleep as well.
Healthy Diet Leads to a Healthy Mind
Ashok J Bharucha reports that a person’s diet can affect their mental health. For example, if a person consumes excessive amounts of carbohydrates (or not enough protein), they are more likely to experience mental sluggishness or problems with mood. Considerable research, for example, posits the benefits of Mediterranean diet which avoids red meats, fats, and pure sugars in favor of fish, white meat, vegetables, and fruit. Mediterranean diet may improve cognitive health.
Sleep, Physical, and Mental Health
Those who do not have proper quantity and quality of sleep, experience serious physical, mental, and cognitive health problems, and may be at high risk for accidents such as falls, driving impairment, etc. A wide array of sleep disorders exist that can greatly compromise sleep, and hence, physical, and mental health. For example, untreated sleep apnea leads to high blood pressure, morning headaches, cognitive impairment, daytime sleepiness, and frequent awakenings at night. Likewise, the presence of mental health problems such as depression or anxiety also impair sleep and physical health. Obviously, physical health problems such as chronic pain also contributes to similar problems.
Depression and the Immune System
There is a connection between depression and the immune system, such that those with depression may become ill more often than those who are not depressed. The association between increased inflammation and depression has been extensively studied. Inflammatory processes may lead to depression which may then contribute to physical issues because of low energy, poor motivation, lack of compliance with medications, and overall inability to care for self. Complicating the picture is the fact that immune function declines with aging, predisposing both to physical and mental health complications.
Happiness and Illness
In addition to attending to their physical health (proper diet, exercise, abstinence from drugs of abuse), individuals are strongly encouraged to engage in activities that bring them joy or happiness. Do more of what they like, and less of what they do not. While being happy does not protect one from falling ill, it certainly helps! Happier individuals tend to be more active, social, and engaged in life. On the other hand, those who find less joy in life are likely to be more isolated, withdrawn, and depressed.
That physical activity, mental health, and social connectedness slow cognitive decline is indisputable. Physical activity, reduction in cardiovascular risk factors (high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, sleep apnea, etc.), proper diet (such as the Mediterranean diet), social engagement, and attention to mental health all combine to slow the aging process and its complications. More importantly, these interventions improve the quality-of-life without the potential added toxicities of medications.
Healthier Food Leads to Better Mood
A healthy diet that minimizes caffeine, pure sugars, and alcohol improves cognition, mood, as well as sleep. Moreover, healthier diets provide consistently higher sustained levels of energy and cognitive clarity. Mealtimes are also a critically important part of human socialization that provides a buffer against isolation and mental health problems.
To sum up, physical and mental health exert reciprocal effects upon each other. Research is providing important clues to the underlying mechanisms by which they do so. The mind-body duality that Rene Descartes articulated centuries ago no longer applies. It is abundantly clear that mental illness is just as real as physical illness, i.e., the person who is experiencing the problem is not weak or simply imagining it. When physical activity, thoughtful diet, proper sleep hygiene, and abstinence from toxins such as alcohol or recreational drugs fail to optimize physical or mental health, professional help should be sought. Ignoring present problems will not just affect your current well-being but has the potential to create longer lasting complications that may become more difficult to manage. For example, untreated depression is a risk factor for eventual development of dementia. Likewise, those who are depressed after a heart attack or stroke, are at a higher risk of physical complications, poorer rehabilitation, and death. Physical, mental, and cognitive health are intricately interdependent, and each deserves our utmost attention and respect.