It has been said that “you are what you eat” but did you know that can mean your physical health can affect your mental health? If you are feeling low or stressed, but don’t know why, it could be that your physical health is affecting aspects of your mental health. This is often a misunderstood connection that many people are simply unaware of.
There are a few things to take into consideration when thinking about how our physical health affects our mental health, including eating healthy, getting consistent exercise, and having quality sleep. If we don’t pay attention to these aspects of our physical life, among others, then it can lead to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Today, we will explore the importance of taking care of yourself physically for your mental well-being.
The Basics of a Healthy Body
The basics of a healthy body are diet, exercise, and sleep. But just because you have all three doesn’t mean you’re healthy. Some foods don’t give us energy; some exercise is useless and extreme; and, sometimes we simply can’t get quality sleep.
Conversely, just because you have all three doesn’t mean you’re unhealthy. Some people manage to be well-rested, work out, and eat more than they should, but stunted in their growth or size. Some people have horrible diets that give them diabetes or high blood pressure or worse, and yet live a long, healthy life. Western medicine likes to think in terms of statistics and risk factors, and it’s true that we can gather accurate information about health from those approaches. But a healthy body also means having the best mental health possible.
For many years, no one knew what “mental illness” was. Professionals couldn’t find it in the body because they didn’t understand how the mind and body worked together. We’ve learned a lot about the mind in recent years, including its connection to proper physical health.
The Basics of Good Mental Health
You can’t lose weight without dieting, you can’t exercise without sleep, and you cannot actively manage your mental health without the basics. A healthy body is the foundation for a healthy mind.
You don’t have to have all three of these to be the best-functioning person you know, but if you’re not getting any of them, you’re likely not performing well in your daily life, which says a lot more about your mental health than your physical abilities.
A person with a healthy diet, exercise, and good sleep will have the following characteristics:
- Consistent energy and motivation to do normal things like schoolwork
- No history of severe depression or anxiety attacks
- Regular bowel movements (even if it’s not perfect every day)
- Regular bladder habits (without accidents or urges)
- Regular sleep cycle (even if it’s not perfect every day)
- No unusual diet/food preferences causing digestive problems
- High tolerance for stress and challenges without feeling overwhelmed
A person with a healthy body can do their job and then go home and relax. A person with an unhealthy body may not have the strength or energy to get through the day, let alone prepare for a second one. And a person with an unhealthy mind can’t make good decisions or think clearly either. They’re tired from no sleep, have racing thoughts from too much caffeine, or are stressed out by their own thoughts.
The basics of good mental health don’t just mean staying alive. It also means leading a good life. It’s the difference between being a successful student and feeling hopeful about your future and being an unsuccessful student who feels hopeless. When you get the basics of good mental health, you’ll do better in all areas of your life.
Mental and Physical Health Problems: What Is the Link?
For most people, mental and physical health problems are seen as entirely separate. However, many professionals believe that if you have one type of problem, then the chances of developing another increase.
The connection between mental and physical health is often viewed in terms of stress. If you’re having problems with your work or family life, then this may start to affect your physical health. For example, a stressed person might eat junk food because they’re too tired to cook.
The connection between mental and physical health is also considered in terms of the immune system since stress affects the body’s ability to fight off infections. Again, this can be because people are too tired to eat well and look after themselves.
Another way that mental and physical health are connected is through stress and hormone levels. These, in turn, affect different parts of the body, including the brain.
A person with unhealthy diet, exercise, and sleep habits may have the following characteristics:
- Inconsistent energy levels, irregular motivation to do normal things
- History of severe depression or anxiety attacks
- Inconsistent bowel movements, irregular bladder habits
- Irregular sleep cycle
- Diet includes junk food and/or inadequate nutrition, causing a variety of digestive problems including constipation, diarrhea, acid reflux, etc.
- Physical illness or psychological problems can cause a person to be overwhelmed by stress
- High tolerance for stress and challenges until the last straw breaks them (they are stressed out all day, then have an anger attack at home)
Here’s how mental health problems might lead to physical health problems:
If you suffer from anxiety, then you may begin to suffer from insomnia and depression. Without proper amounts of sleep, your immune system will not function as well and you’re likely to put on weight. As some of the main symptoms are poor appetite, nausea, and a raised heart rate, sufferers often become malnourished.
Psychological stress is also a known factor in diseases such as ulcers, heart failure, and high blood pressure. People with anxiety disorders are twice as likely to suffer from depression later in life than the population at large – it’s thought that this may be because of the stress they’ve experienced.
Depression has been linked to both heart disease and diabetes. These are serious illnesses with a high mortality rate, so anyone carrying this dual burden is very likely to suffer badly due to their physical condition as well as the depression itself.
Depression has been linked to an inability to manage stress and build resilience – it’s thought that people who experience traumatic events, such as being in a war zone or having to deal with a significant loss, benefit by talking about the experience with someone with similar experiences.
In recent years, there has been more of an effort to train mental health professionals in this area. As with any illness, there is an element of social support that can be critical in helping someone to recover. This is especially the case for those who have lost someone close to them or are in a profession where they see death on a regular basis, such as police work or ER nursing.
Ways to Stay Mentally Healthy
- Get at least seven hours of sleep every day. According to the National Sleep Foundation, insomnia is linked to a number of mental health issues, including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, and anxiety. People with more than six hours of sleep per night have fewer feelings of depression and anxiety compared to those who slept for less than six hours.
- Make time to exercise every day. Exercise is great for your brain, not just your body. For people suffering from depression and anxiety, regular aerobic exercise (such as walking or running) helps reduce symptoms by helping to fight off depression-inducing chemicals. Aerobic fitness is also linked to lower levels of anxiety and improved cognitive functioning.
- Eat a balanced diet. Eating healthier foods has been shown to help boost moods, improve memory, and prevent or manage the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Make sure you’re getting plenty of proteins from lean meats, fruits, and vegetables. Limit the amount of added sugar, saturated fats, and processed foods in your diet.
People often ask, “is sleep or exercise better for anxiety?” As explained, one is not more or less important than the other. Rather, the balance of healthy sleep, exercise, and a healthy diet among other habits have the power to give yourself the best relief from mental issues like anxiety.
How Does Eating Healthy and Exercise Help You Mentally?
A healthy and fit body promotes good mental health. This is because being physically active boosts our energy levels, moods, concentration skills, and self-image. Exercise also releases endorphins, which make us feel happier by activating the reward system in our brains that gives us pleasure and lessens pain. Exercising regularly can increase a person’s self-esteem by making them feel more in control of their own lives and what they do with them. Moreover, an active and healthy lifestyle can help a person sleep better. It is because physical activity affects our bodies’ circadian rhythm. When we are tired, our body will produce more melatonin to make us sleepy.
Eating well promotes good mental health. It helps encourage self-discipline, a strong work ethic, and good decision-making skills. Studies show that when people eat healthy foods — like fruits and vegetables, they have better concentration, motivation, memory recall, and mental clarity. A healthy diet can also lead to increased energy levels which will result in greater productivity at home or work. It is important to note that eating healthy foods does not only mean avoiding junk food. It means eating a well-balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Does Exercise and Diet Help With Depression?
Yes, a healthy body means good mental health. Depression can lead to poor eating habits and a lack of exercise. This leads to a slew of chronic illnesses as well as psychiatric disorders. A balanced diet with a variety of foods is the best combination for depression. It gives our bodies all the nutrients we need to function properly and may help our bodies deal with symptoms of depression. By changing our diet and exercising, we can change the course of depression.
One may not notice that their depression is driving them to poor eating habits. They may think, “I’m depressed; I don’t want to eat.” However, it is simply because they do not have an appetite for food, which is influenced by depression. Sometimes they have a craving for sweet foods or carbohydrates, as the body tries to get energy from any source possible, but a diet with an overabundance of carbohydrates can make matters worse. Matching a healthy diet with a consistent exercise regimen will provide energy and fight depression.
Your body talks to you every day — listen to it and take care of yourself. If your body is telling you that something is wrong (you’re tired but can’t sleep, stressed out from a job but too unhappy to look for a new one, etc.) then find out what’s wrong and take steps to fix it. It goes without saying that immediately altering your lifestyle and rooted personal habits is not an easy task that can be switched on and off overnight, but do realize that whether or not you have serious mental health problems, you can still lead a happy life as long as your body gives you the basics.
You will feel happier, healthier, and more successful if you make your mental health a priority by focusing on your body’s physical needs. For more information on how you can begin a new physical and mental health journey, please connect with a professional here who would be delighted to assist you.
Assistant Clinical Director
Lesley McKinney, LPCC, is the Assistant Clinical Director at Sage Neuroscience Center, and an individual therapist. Lesley has been foundationaly trained in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and loves working with individuals who have struggled to find success in therapy. In her non-work time, she enjoys being with her two kids, husband, friends, and family. She is completing a Masters in Healthcare Administration to continue to work on improving access to mental health care to her home state of New Mexico.