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How Mental Health Affects Physical Health

Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month, this is the perfect time to educate ourselves about mental health, and how it can impact all aspects of our lives. Our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health are all intertwined. When one aspect of our health is out of balance, it can effect other aspects as well. This is one reason why caring for your mental health is so important.

According to WebMD, mental health issues can cause:

  • Chronic diseases. Depression has been linked to many chronic illnesses. These illnesses include diabetes, asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and arthritis. 

  • Schizophrenia has also been linked to a higher risk of heart and respiratory diseases.

  • Mental health conditions can also make dealing with a chronic illness more difficult.

  • People with mental health conditions are more likely to suffer from sleep disorders, like insomnia or sleep apnea.

  • People with mental health conditions are more likely to smoke than those who do not have mental health conditions.

  • People with mental health conditions are less likely to have access to adequate health care.

  • When you have a mental health condition, it can be hard to seek care, take prescriptions regularly, or get enough exercise.

Some of these symptoms are caused by our mental health conditions, either because of the way the brain functions with mental health problems, or due to mental health symptoms. For example, if you have low motivation due to depression, you are more likely to resort to unhealthy coping skills such as drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes, which can negatively impact your overall health.

Some of the reasons why people with mental health conditions are less likely to have good physical health, according to The Mental Health Foundation, include:

  • genetics – the genes that make it more likely that you will develop a mental health problem may also play a part in physical health problems

  • low motivation – some mental health problems or medications can affect your energy or motivation to take care of yourself

  • difficulty with concentration and planning – you may find it hard to arrange or attend medical appointments if your mental health problem affects your concentration

  • lack of support to change unhealthy behaviour – healthcare professionals may assume you’re not capable of making changes, so won’t offer any support to cut down on drinking or give up smoking, for example

  • being less likely to receive medical help – healthcare professionals may assume your physical symptoms are part of your mental illness and not investigate them further. People with a mental illness are less likely to receive routine checks (like blood pressure, weight and cholesterol) that might detect symptoms of physical health conditions earlier.

It can be difficult to motivate yourself to do things to take care of your health when you have a mental health condition. When you feel stuck in the moment with your emotions on overload, it is difficult to focus on anything else. So, learning proper coping skills for your mental health can be beneficial to both physical and mental health.

Wellness can combat stress and improve your mental health

As I have been suffering through a deep depression for the last year, I have had several mental health professionals tell me to take walks outside to improve my depression. So, every day, I try to spend some time outside in nature, even if it is only a few minutes sitting outside on the patio with my coffee.

Spending time in the sunlight, and in green or blue spaces (think parks, or near a lake, stream or the ocean) can help to improve your mental health.

According to Zeel,

Sunlight exposure helps to increase levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in mood regulation. Serotonin is often referred to as the “happiness hormone” because it can promote feelings of well-being and contentment. When we are exposed to sunlight, our retinas send signals to the brain, which triggers the release of serotonin which can boost our mood and energy levels.

If there is bad weather outside, or in the winter time, you can also buy a special UV light called a SAD light, which simulates the sun's rays and causes the same boost in your mental wellbeing. You can sit with the light for 10 minutes in the morning, and give yourself a mental boost.

Similarly, if it is a beautiful day outside, opening your windows and letting in the sunlight can give you a boost, too! Having natural light can help to reset your biorhythms, and help you sleep better. We aren't meant to live with artificial light all the time. Having sunlight, and matching your sleep cycle to when the sun rises and sets can have a positive effect on your sleep and your health.

If you are feeling stressed, worried, anxious or depressed, doing small things to take care of your health can be a big help. Wellness can combat stress. Just like how mental health impacts physical health, the reverse is true as well. Making sure to eat a balanced diet, take vitamins, or taking a few minutes to do some yoga can help to give you a boost both physically and mentally.

Healthy eating can have a bigger impact on our mental health than we imagine. Even though if you feel stressed, anxious or depressed you are more likely to gobble up sweets or eat processed foods, this is actually counterproductive to your mental health in the long run. Chocolate can give you a temporary boost, but it negatively impacts your health if you are eating it all the time in attempt to feel better.

According to some new research on the connection between our brains and our guts, the American Psychological Association says that,

Gut bacteria also produce hundreds of neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate basic physiological processes as well as mental processes such as learning, memory and mood. For example, gut bacteria manufacture about 95 percent of the body's supply of serotonin, which influences both mood and GI activity.

Serotonin is one of the body's "happiness chemicals" and low levels of serotonin are often associated with depression. This is why people are often prescribed SSRI's (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) when we have depression. These are medications that are meant to increase the amount of serotonin in the bloodstream, so that you will feel happier over a longer period of time.

According to the UK National Health Service,

After carrying a message, serotonin is usually reabsorbed by the nerve cells (known as "reuptake"). SSRIs work by blocking ("inhibiting") reuptake, meaning more serotonin is available to pass further messages between nearby nerve cells.

In other words, when you take an SSRI Anti-Depressant, the medication is artificially increasing the amount of serotonin in your body, in order to keep you happier. You can also create a similar effect through healthy eating. When you put healthy foods into your gut, you increase your body's natural serotonin production. This means, certain foods can act as natural anti-depressants.

According to Health Partners,

Complex carbohydrates, like fruits, vegetables, whole grain bread and pasta, legumes, oatmeal and quinoa, supply the body with the energy it needs to function well. They also help an amino acid called tryptophan (found in turkey, chicken, bananas, tofu and cheese) more easily cross the blood-brain barrier. As more tryptophan enters your brain, more serotonin is formed. This can improve your mood.

By eating more complex carbohydrates, you can make yourself both healthier and happier! So, next time you are tempted to reach for some junk food, you may want to consider eating some fruits and veggies instead.

If you're like me and feel lazy about cooking, you can buy premade fruit or veggie trays at most supermarkets, so you can just dig in without any food prep needed! Having something premade can make life easier when you have depression and don't have the motivation to do any cooking. For me, apples and baby carrots are the easiest healthy choices to reach for. Like the old adage goes, "an apple a day keeps the doctor away."

Understanding well rounded health

In order to understand how to maintain well-rounded mental, physical, social and spiritual health, thinking about your body and mind as an interconnected system is extremely helpful. Most of us don't really spend a lot of time thinking about stuff like this, so having a tool to use in measuring your health can be helpful.

One tool I have found helpful in looking at my own health is the Wheel of Wellness. This is an easy quiz that you can complete to look at your health in a holistic way.

According to Clarion University,

The Wellness Wheel illustrates a wellness model with seven dimensions:  emotional, intellectual, physical, social, environmental, financial, and spiritual.  All of the dimensions are interconnected and important to a well-rounded and balanced lifestyle.

By assessing your health and wellness this way, it is easy to find ways to work on your health in areas that it may be lacking. If you do this, you can decide on health goals that will help you feel better in many different areas of your life.

You can take an easy online quiz to determine what are some good next steps by using the wheel of wellness. This is just one way to look at your overall health, and find next steps that may work for you!

Set small goals

If you are coping with a mental illness, it is important to start small with your goals. Since tiredness and lack of motivation often accompany mental illness, you might not have a lot of energy when it comes to taking care of yourself. That's perfectly OK. It's normal, and many of us struggle in caring for our health.

For those of us with a mental illness, we might start super small with our goals. You can decide to let in some sunlight by opening the window in the morning in the room you spend the most time. You can do five minutes or yoga, or take multi-vitamin. You can decide to brush your teeth before bed.

You don't have to go out and buy an air fryer and a gym membership tomorrow. Setting goals that are too difficult is one of the main reasons why people give up. But, completing a goal (no matter how small) can create feel-good hormones in our brains, too.

In addition to serotonin, which we discussed earlier, the brain produces another feel-good hormone called dopamine. This is the reward hormone of the brain. It is activated by things like eating chocolate, smoking, or getting likes on social media. But, it is also activated when you achieve a goal.

According to ICS,

Dopamine and serotonin in particular are the neurotransmitters that are relevant when it comes to goals. Dopamine is considered a ‘reward’ chemical that your brain releases when you’ve achieved (or you’re close to achieving) a goal. It creates feelings of motivation, satisfaction and productivity. Serotonin helps to create feelings of happiness, calm and focus. The presence of neurotransmitters explains why you feel great when you achieve a goal.

When you set small goals that are easy to complete, you are essentially hacking your brain chemistry. Each time you complete your goal, you brain releases these feel-good hormones. This helps to reinforce goal setting behavior. So, once you master a few small goals, you will be able to move onto something a little more difficult.

Completing our goals becomes a habit that we can look forward to. If they are health and wellness goals, you feel better as a result in two ways. First, because the happy hormones are released when you complete the goal. Second, because you are improving your general health, which naturally makes you feel better too.

Taking control of your health is a great way to improve your mental health! For some easy ways to get started to day, check out my other article:

The smaller you start, the more likely you are to succeed. So, make your first goal something you know will be super easy. It might feel stupid. But it works!


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