For centuries, we’ve drawn a clear line between mental health and physical health, treating the latter as the concern of all and the former as issue only for an unlucky few.

We were wrong.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about mental health in the 21st century, it’s that everyone has a stake in it, and that it is intimately linked to physical conditions and illnesses . 

It isn’t even close to fair to say that someone suffering from, say, chronic depression simply needs to cheer up and go for a run – but the second part has some truth to it.

As medical science has come to better understand the links between mental and physical wellbeing, we’ve all come to learn lessons about this subject that can only benefit us and those around us if we know about them.

Keep reading to see what the basic relationship between mental and physical health, what to look out for, and what to do to stay healthy.

Background

While enormous progress has been made in physical medicine over the last century - vaccines, prosthetics, cancer treatments, and medicines all advancing by leaps and bounds - mental health has been a bit slower to start. Mental illnesses of all varieties were once thought of as simply different types of manias, and either resulted in incarceration for those without means or in the sufferer’s family having to shoulder much of the burden of care.

Particularly in recent years, things have gotten a bit better, and medical researchers have discovered, among other things, the variety of mental illnesses or disorders as well as the prevalence of it. 

If you hear the phrase “mental illness,” you might assume that it simply means some type of depression.

But do you know how many there really are?

Well, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists over 450 different definitions of mental disorders, ranging from agoraphobia to Tourette’s syndrome.

Now consider that recent studies have suggested that in 2017 alone, 18.9% of US adults were living with “Any Mental Illness” (AMI, as the National Institute of Mental Health calls it), up from 18.07% in 2015, and mental health disorders affect roughly 20% of children and adolescents in the US.

So what does this mean?

These two facts tell us that, not only is the number of people with mental health issues increasing, but they’re covering a broad range of increasingly better-understood conditions, with a huge number of implications for your physical health.

Here’s how.

Where Mind and Body Meet

It may seem a bit too obvious, but while mental illnesses aren’t caused by physical and environmental factors, they do have a significant impact on mental health. Issues with physical health such as skin problems, weight (either too much or too little), or chronic physical ailments or disabilities can affect anyone. 

These, often in combination with environmental factors such as excessive or insufficient sleep, poor diet, and lack of exercise, frequently lead to poor self-esteem, lower levels of sufficient fresh air and decreased blood flow. All of these can either worsen existing mental conditions or even, if ignored long enough, damage a person’s happiness and mental health badly enough to give rise to mental illnesses such as depression or Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), a condition describing constant dissatisfaction and unhappiness with one’s physical appearance.

So how do the mind and body interact?

Diet

Diet is one of the most significant and yet overlooked contributors to mental health. Although medical interest in the connection between diet and mental health is fairly recent, with most research focusing on depression and anxiety, there are strong indications that altered or improved diets can positively impact a range of conditions including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. 

The bulk of research done on this topic have suggested that diets low in refined sugars and saturated fats, but high in omega-3s and zinc, are crucial for healthy brain chemistry, enabling healthy neural proteins and enzymes. Additionally, larger quantities of fresh produce are strongly linked to positive body image and improved satisfaction with one’s body.

Exercise

This might seem like an old crackpot idea from the 19th century, but exercise really does have a huge positive effect on mental health. 

Good feelings are the result of the brain releasing chemicals called endorphins, and exercise can release unusually large amounts of these. The British Mental Health Foundation reports that even ten minutes’ walking significantly increases mental alertness, respiration and blood flow, and positive mood. 

The added benefit of improved physical condition also plays a major role in preventing many illnesses which themselves compound poor mental health and mental illness.

Environmental Risk Factors

Three lifestyle factors with a significant influence on mental health and a healthy environment in general are romantic relationships, abuse, and community. 

For example, a study of women living with depressive disorders in the UK found that they were 2.5 times more likely to have experienced domestic violence in the past. 

A Harvard University study in 2015 found that 1 in 4 children who had suffered physical abuse and neglect had experienced depression. 

It should come as no surprise that mistreatment from those who are meant to care for us can – and likely often does – lead to poor mental and emotional fitness later in life.

Similarly, those dealing with unaddressed trauma and mental illness can have a toxic effect on intimate relationships, while a healthy, supportive relationship can actually help alleviate the effects of anxiety and depression.

This is linked to the same positive benefit of community. Many studies have been conducted over recent decades which have found links between loneliness and mental illnesses, especially depression and anxiety. This is particularly prevalent among older people, who are more likely to be isolated and whose social networks are subject to deterioration as friends, family, and intimate acquaintances grow older and die, often leading to their loved ones having feelings of chronic sadness and amplified negative effects from physical complaints associated with aging.

For this reason, many people seeking to heal the effects of loneliness and detachment seek out new communities such as volunteer organizations, churches, and friends through internet meet-ups. 

The Direct Effects of Poor Mental Health

Research over the past decade has found that people who struggle with mental health are at higher risk for physical conditions including:

  •   Cardiovascular illnesses including heart disease, stroke, and hypertension
  •   Chronic illnesses such as diabetes, psoriasis, or asthma
  •   Cancers, particularly those to do with environmental factors such as lung and liver cancers
  •   Obesity and gastronomical problems

Those with AMI were also at a higher than normal risk for:

  •   Alcohol and drug misuse
  •   Violence and self-destruction (including self-harm)
  •   Suicide

Much of this same research has found that people with AMI, particularly with serious illnesses such as schizophrenia, who develop any of these associated medical conditions are then more likely to grow further depressed or mentally unwell as a result of the trauma of physical illness. 

This then further damages their mental health, and is compounded by hopelessness and often by a reluctance or refusal to visit medical professionals. Men, in particular, are less inclined to go for a medical examination than women. To cope with the worry of a chronic or serious illness, sufferers are several times more likely to use nicotine and self-medicate with alcohol.

Sufferers of schizophrenia, for example, have the added burden of having triple the average risk of respiratory diseases and double the risk of heart disease. Much of this can be attributed to the decreased motivation many such sufferers reported in regards to physical health.

Depression, in particular, is strongly correlated with other unpleasant physical ailments including constipation, insomnia, lack of appetite, and lethargy. People living with depression have a 41% higher risk of diabetes and are less likely to feel proactive in seeking treatment for any physical illnesses.

All of these combine to decrease physical wellness and happiness, and may even shorten your life. A 2017 study published in the Canadian Medical Association journal found that chronic depression may reduce your life by 7 to 18 years.

Best Practices for Good Health

So we’ve seen how mental and physical health interact, and how being unwell in one dims your chances in the other.

Looks pretty grim, right?

Luckily, there are a few things that can be done pretty easily to improve the odds.

Get Some Exercise

It can be hard to work up the will to exercise, but its benefits can’t be overstated. There’s no consensus on how much is optimal for good mental health, but there are many options. If you’re able, it can be useful to walk or bike rather than drive, join a gym, or walk a dog (pets can be terrifically helpful for good mental health.) Any time spent physically active is helpful.


Watch What You Eat

When snacking, avoid packaged sweets and fatty foods. Opt instead for fruitS, nuts, or grain snacks. You’ll feel better about yourself for having made the harder choice, and your body will thank you for it.


Avoid Nicotine and Alcohol

Both of these drugs are depressants. While that’s a bit more complicated than it may seem, it’s a good idea to avoid the negative chemical effects these will have on your brain and your mood, and skipping them will improve your physical health both immediately and in the long run.


Talk to Someone

This last one is perhaps the most important of them all. Whether it’s a friend, partner, family member, or therapist, talking about your mental and emotional state, while difficult, can help you to clarify and order your thoughts and feelings and will let those who can help you know just what you’re going through.

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