How healthy you are physically has a direct influence on how healthy you are mentally – and vice versa. It’s well known that the body and mind are not totally separate and that those things which affect one will inevitably have a knock-on effect for the other.
How Mental Health affects your Physical Health
How we think and feel can actually cause us to be more or less at-risk of certain physical health problems.
One example that is well documented is that people who regularly or constantly experience high levels of stress (chronic stress) can develop the symptom effects of ‘allostatic load’. This means that as a result of constant exposure to stress, your body’s systems (organs, tissues, hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine) that are involved in a stress response become damaged over time, which can lead to disease over longer time periods (McEwan, 1998). An impaired immune system is less able to function and chronic stress may result in people finding that they suffer more often from coughs and colds but additionally more serious complaints. People who are distressed are also more likely to develop health habits that lead to poorer physical health, including disturbed sleep, a greater likelihood of alcohol and substance abuse, inadequate diet, and lack of exercise, with serious consequences for both physical and mental health (Kiecolt-Glaser & Glaser 1988). This is why managing stress in our lives is so important. Taking care of ourselves by reducing harmful health behaviours (smoking, binge drinking) and making sure our lifestyles are healthy (with diet and exercise) will help us to become better able to cope with stress and more physically and mentally healthy.
Mental health problems
As well as stress, if you have a more serious mental health problem you may be at a greater risk of physical health problems. A number of research studies have linked depressive symptoms with some of the most common serious health problems in the UK, including: coronary heart disease (CHD); cancer risk; risk of osteoporosis (weak bones) in women; with a rise in general ill-health from increasing pain and disability; (Kiecolt-Glaser et al, 2002). Anxiety has also been linked to the development of coronary heart disease (CHD) and risk of heart attacks in some groups of people (Kiecolt-Glaser et al).
Various symptoms of mental illness as well as the side effects of certain medications used to treat mental illness (antipsychotics or antidepressants etc) can have an impact on our physical health. Medications may also carry some risk of physical side-effects such as movement disorders, weight gain or changes in your heart; all of which can have the potential to make us feel physically unwell. It is important to be aware of any changes in your physical health if you have a mental health problem or take medication. There is much you can do to look after your physical health which will enhance your mental health; and vice versa.
How Physical Health affects your Mental Health
Of course this relationship works both ways and our physical health can affect our mental state and how we feel and think about things too. This part of the site talks about how to improve your diet, exercise, relaxation and positive health behaviours and how negative health behaviours such as alcohol and drugs can also impact negatively on your mental health.
Being physically unwell
Think about how you would feel if you were unwell physically. It could affect whether you could go out to work, or to school; your relationships with other people; or if you could get out of the house to socialise with friends. Being unwell and undergoing treatment for a physical problem can be stressful which can leave us more prone to anxiety and depression. Being unwell can make us feel angry and frustrated, worried about our health, our future and sad that we can’t do things we would usually do. If you have a serious or long-term illness these emotions can be magnified even more and you may feel isolated or that you are losing your control of your life. These situations can have a big impact on your emotional wellbeing and mental health.
Improving your health
There are many things you can do to improve your physical wellbeing that will also develop your mental health. Some of these include:
Exercise is a great way to improve your physical and mental health. Doing exercise has been associated with reduced anxiety, decreased depression, enhanced mood, improved self-worth and body image, as well as increasing positive thinking (Mental Health Foundation, 2005). It is one of the recommended treatments for depression and has been shown to be as effective in treating depression as medication or psychotherapy.
Why is exercise a good idea?
- Physical activity also helps to reduce stress levels and can prevent some of its damaging effects on the body.
- Exercise helps us by strengthening the heart and improving blood circulation.
- Exercise can help raise self-esteem, reduce sleep problems, improve memory and concentration, take your mind off negative thoughts as well as reduce feelings of anxiety and depression.
- Exercise is a sustainable behaviour change. Once the exercise habit is learned, it can be integrated to form part of an overall healthy lifestyle.
- Exercise can give you a sense of power over your own recovery, which at the same time may lessen any feelings of hopelessness often experienced in problems like depression.
- Exercise has a number of co-incidental benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, some cancers, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and obesity (Mental Health Foundation, 2005).
- Exercise can be used to treat a mix of physical and mental health problems, so it is a holistic care option. (Mental Health Foundation, 2005).
- Exercise does not carry the stigma sometimes associated with medication or counselling. (Mental Health Foundation, 2005).
- Exercise is a popular treatment– in one survey, 85 % of people with mental health problems who used exercise as a treatment said they found it helpful (Mental Health Foundation, 2005).
Exercise does not have to be intense; just walking everyday can make a massive difference to your mood. It can also be relaxing and fun – find a friend to exercise with and set yourself goals to stay healthy. You should be aiming for about 30 minutes on most days of the week. If you can, try and join a local gym, club or association where others will help to keep you motivated and you can motivate them in return. You could also try street dance, break dancing, horse-riding, karate, basketball or skateboarding (just not all at the same time).
Most of us are aware that eating healthily can prevent us becoming unwell physically (it reduces the risk of obesity, stroke, heart attacks and CHD and type 2 diabetes to name a few). However, not everyone is aware that this same principle can be good for our mental health. When things get too hectic and you feel stressed it's easy to forget about what you eat. However, what we eat, and when, can make a big difference. It's important not to miss out on meals, especially breakfast, and to make time for regular food or snacks. Try not to rush your meals, take time to think about and enjoy what you're eating.
Advice form the Mental Health Foundation (2007) is that there are many positive changes we can introduce to improve our diet, such as:
- Eat regularly throughout the day
- Choose less refined high sugar foods and drinks and more wholegrain cereals, pulses, fruit and vegetables
- Include protein at each meal
- Eat a wide variety of foods
- Include oily fish (omega 3 fatty acids) in your diet
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Maintain adequate fluid intake
- If you drink alcohol keep within recommended limits
- Exercise regularly
If you are taking medication ask your doctor or nurse about your diet and if there are any interactions. For example some foods can react badly with some kinds of anti-depressants and some foods such as grapefruit can make different types of medication more concentrated.
For information on eating well including the recommended amounts of fat, salt and sugar you need check out advice from the Food Standards Agency www.eatwell.gov.uk/healthydiet/fss/salt/