The connection between physical and mental health

The connection between physical and mental health

Clinical Psychologist 

How important is the link between physical and mental health?

The idea that physical and mental health are different from one another is a historical idea. The mind and body are part of one delicate system, when one thing goes off, the others will soon follow. The gut, the heart, the liver, the kidney are all communicating with the brain and impact the brain and so how healthy they are will impact our mental health and overall wellbeing. 

Are there any ways that people can promote positive mental health, through changes to their lifestyle and routine? 

Even though you have asked me a question about ‘mental health’ I am going to answer it with the latest science about  human wellbeing and that means I will answer it with an understanding that health is holistic.

We know that human beings have survived and been resilient for thousands of years because of the way we lived, moved and ate. Our bodies are coded for activity and work best when we move with nature, when we rise and set with the sun. Many of our physical and mental illnesses are a result of us forgetting to do the basics that our body requires a delicate balance of eating, moving, sleeping and resting. 

Sleep – Poor quality sleep and insufficient quantity of sleep has been linked to serious mental and physical health concerns. Without 7-8 hours of sleep our body is not able to do the most important functions in order to restore, recover, and recuperate. Every part of our brain and body is impacted by lack of sleep and poor sleep.  

Exercise – There are many benefits of exercise and movement on our mental health and our brain health. Exercise improves mood and reduces stress by increasing serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine and it also helps promote new brain cells and new neural connections. It helps protect the brain from mental decline as well improve attention and learning.

Eating right – We are what we eat! Research has shown that changes in the gut microbiome and inflammation in the gut can affect the brain and cause symptoms that look like Parkinson’s disease, autism, anxiety and depression. 

Breathing – 70% of our toxins are released by just breathing properly. Most people have shallow breathing, which can confuse the body and mind into being more distressed. Breathing properly elevates mood, improves blood quality, eases tension, and relieves emotional distress. 

Seek support – If your difficulties in life are feeling overwhelming, seek consultation. It is the strangest thing that we will get coaches for sports, consultants for our business, seek medical advice for certain parts of our health, but refuse to see a mental health professional for consultation on our life, emotions, and mental health. The stigma is so dated and makes no logical sense, but people hold on to it and would rather suffer then to go see someone to help them make meaning of their suffering. 

What tips would you give to people trying to make healthy lifestyle changes (both physically and mentally?)

  1. Sleep 7-8 hours of good quality sleep. Consider wearing a Fitbit to measure the quality and quantity of your sleep. 
  2. Exercise: 30 mins of moderate exercise (60-75% of maximum heart rate) 5 x a week. If you don’t exercise, start with increasing your steps. 
  3. Hydrate. Even 2% dehydration (which results from going about your day to day routine)can result in poor focus and concentration, irritable mood, anxious and depressive symptoms, confusion and slower thinking. 
  4. Eat right: By altering the types of bacteria in your gut, it may be possible to improve your brain health. Omega-3 fatty acids, fermented foods, probiotics and other polyphenol-rich foods may improve your gut health, which may benefit the gut-brain axis
  5. Adopt good posture: Sitting and standing up straight. Your posture impacts your mood. A study by Harvard University found that sitting up straight improved certain symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression.
  6. Breathe right- Engage in conscious breathing. For example: breathe in for 4, hold for 7, and breathe out of 8 or breathe in and out for 5 seconds. 
  7. Meditate: meditating can change the structure and function of the brain through relaxation, which can help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, increase focus, learning and concentration, improve memory and attention span, helps to build stronger immune system and greater physical/psychological resilience and allows for better sleep.
  8. Invest in your social relationships- Close, confiding social relationships are the number one indicator of happiness, whereas feeling lonely can disrupt sleep, raise blood pressure, weaken immunity, increase depression and lower subjective wellbeing. 

Do you think that our mental health can benefit from regular exercise?  

I don’t think, I know it does. 

There is now plenty of research that shows that exercise can be equally or more effective that some medications for treating depression and anxiety as well as helping with attention and learning. 

Exercise also reduces stress, releases happy chemicals in our body, grows our brain cells, protects our brain cells from deterioration (i.e. dementia), helps ease the stress that is a result of hormonal changes that come with age, help us gain self-esteem and a sense of control of our life.

Regular exercise will benefit your physical health, what are some easy-to-follow practices (habits) that could help maintain good mental health on the long run?

  1. It is recommended that you engage 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise at 60-75% of your maximum heart rate. 
  2. Consider wearing a Fitbit or other wearable device. 
  3. If you don’t exercise, start by keeping track of your 
  4. Pair movement with something you enjoy doing—it can be listening to a podcast, walking with a friend, or walking on the beach or do something like dancing or trampolining. 
  5. Reward yourself immediately after—it could be your favorite coffee or smoothy, or calling your friend on the car right home—something you enjoy and something that happens immediately after you are done exercising.

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