The profound connection between mental and physical health

The connection between mental and physical health is more than just a casual relationship – it’s a profound interplay that shapes our well-being. The two operate through a web of biological and chemical processes that tie our bodies and minds together. Neurotransmitters don’t just affect our mood but also influence our physical sensations. For instance, when you’re anxious, you might notice your heart racing or your palms getting sweaty. This is because neurotransmitters like adrenaline are at play, showcasing the close link between our emotional state and our bodily responses.

Impact of Physical Health on Mental Health

Our physical well-being can significantly impact how we feel mentally. Imagine dealing with chronic pain or a persistent illness – it’s not just the physical discomfort that wears you down, but the emotional toll it takes. Constant pain can lead to frustration, fatigue, and even depression. When our bodies aren’t at their best, our minds can also bear the brunt, affecting our emotional resilience and outlook on life. 

We all go through periods where our fitness dips a little, and those times can often coincide with negative self-image, whether that’s our body image or belief in physical performance or fitness that we subconsciously attack.

Impact of Mental Health on Physical Health

Flip the coin, and you’ll find that our mental health plays a role in our physical condition too. Prolonged stress, for instance, can have a tangible impact on our bodies. When we’re stressed, our bodies release cortisol, a stress hormone. While this response is meant to be protective, chronic stress can lead to a host of problems. It can weaken our immune system, making us more susceptible to illnesses. It can also contribute to inflammation, which is linked to various health issues, including heart disease. So, it’s not just in our heads – our mental state can truly affect our physical health. 

Made famous by Descartes, the phrase ‘I think, therefore I am’ can come into play here – if you tell yourself that you are a certain way, you will trick your mind into believing it. This can work in your favour if for example, you tell yourself you’re a great runner and constantly improving and developing, or work against you if you tell yourself the opposite. It’s easy to get in your own head, so telling yourself what you need to hear – whether you believe it or not – can seriously help.

Nutrition also plays a pivotal role in both factors, but the role of nutrition with physical health is seemingly much more widely appreciated than with mental health – many do not realise that the two are intrinsically linked, with poor nutrition even being a contributing factor to depression.

Mental Health and Nutrition

Sanchez-Villegas et al. (2011) found that those consuming large amounts of fast food were 40% more likely to be depressed than their counterparts consuming a more nutritious diet. This group were also more likely to be working over 45 hours per week – a potential reason for reaching for junk food instead of eating a home-cooked meal. This pattern of depressive symptoms is seemingly similar even among those who do have a balanced and nutritious diet – Akbaraly et al., (2009) found that those adhering to a ‘whole food pattern’ the most strictly had a lower odds ratio (OR = 0.74) of CES-D depression than those following the same food pattern but less intensely. This study also determined that those eating a highly processed diet were at a much higher risk (OR=1.58) of developing depression in the future, as well as suffering at the time. It was thus concluded that in middle-aged participants, eating a processed diet is a risk factor for CES-D depression five years later and that a diet based on ‘whole foods’ is protective of such.

This is supported by Sutliffe et al. (2018), who determined that a diet rich in fruit, vegetables and legumes increases sleep hygiene, quality of life (measured by QLI–Generic-III) in all aspects (health*, psychological*, socioeconomic and family) and halved depression scores* (Beck’s Depression Inventory) in just 6 weeks. These changes bore no correlation to physical activity, and so were determined to be solely from a change in diet.

Of course, it can be a perpetual cycle with depression specifically, as motivation can often be reduced in those suffering from depression, meaning more convenient/easier options are often chosen when the motivation to eat arises. For the most part, these types of foods tend to be more processed or considered fast food, making it difficult to break the cycle.

Lifestyle Factors as Building Blocks

While it might seem like a complex equation, there are some simple ways to maintain the balance between our physical and mental well-being. Engaging in regular physical activity isn’t just about keeping your body fit; it’s also a powerful tool to boost your mood. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, often referred to as “feel-good” hormones. These endorphins can work wonders in reducing stress and anxiety, highlighting the undeniable connection between staying active and feeling mentally refreshed.

Mental health, physical health, and nutrition are interwoven factors that we consider on a day-to-day basis, whether we realise it or not. Each has a direct impact on the others, and sustaining all three to the best of our abilities can be difficult on a daily basis, but the long-term benefit of improved overall health is worthwhile if it is achievable for you. It is important to remember that good physical health is not just training for hours in the gym every day, and good nutrition is not solely eating salads – it is incorporating a range of joyful movement into your lifestyle, and making room for foods that you love in your diet, to help improve your mental health, with all contributing to improved overall health.

If you would like to discuss a bespoke plan, book a call with one of our all-knowing nutritionists to discuss this further. Have all the information you need but just don’t want to cook? Give one of our plans a go with £50 off your first 5 days with code BLOG50 – Start your trial here.

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Meghan Foulsham

Published by Meghan Foulsham

Meghan's fascination with metabolism and the effect of diet on the body covered in her BSc Biochemistry, paired with being a passionate mental health advocate, led her to a Master's degree in Eating Disorders and Clinical Nutrition. Using this, Meghan works with clients to help them reach their goals in the most sustainable way, without sacrificing or risking their mental health.

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