Mental Health Awareness Month: How does your mental wellbeing impact physical health

22 May,2024 07:41 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Maitrai Agarwal

Mental health expert outlines how mental health can influence physical health and what you can do to improve both

Image for representational purposes only. Photo Courtesy: iStock

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We all know feeling stressed can lead to a headache, but did you know mental health can impact your entire body? Our minds and bodies are intricately linked, and what affects one can significantly affect the other. Far from being a separate entity, mental wellbeing is intricately woven into the fabric of our physical health.

When our minds are burdened by chronic stress, anxiety, or depression, the ripple effects course throughout our bodies. Our immune system, the body's first line of defence, can become compromised, leaving us more vulnerable to infections and hindering our ability to fight them off. This Mental Health Awareness Month, Yesha Mehta, therapist at The Mood Space delves into the connection between mind and body, and what can you do to better mental wellbeing.

Stress hormones
Feeling anxious? Your body might be in ‘fight-or-flight' mode. Our mental health can cause various psychosomatic illnesses due to the changes in the release of crucial hormones. When the body feels anxious our stress response, also known as fight or flight response, gets activated. This is an evolutionary response, which helps protect us from threats and gets activated by the production of hormones called cortisol and adrenaline. Frequent states of stress will increase the stress hormones in the body and may cause multiple illnesses.

Also Read: How higher cortisol levels impact skin's barrier function

The gut-brain connection
When your gut health suffers, so can your mood. Our brain and gut are closely related as more than 50 crucial hormones are produced in the gut. Many people who experience anxiety have often reported stomach aches, acid reflux, diarrhoea, and other gastronomical symptoms. Chronic anxiety can distort the balance of bacteria in the stomach causing conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome.

Sleepless nights, restless minds
Sleeping too much or too little is a sign of poor mental health. Mental health struggles can disrupt your sleep cycle in several ways. Those suffering from depression tend to have lower energy levels and fatigue leading the individual to spend more time sleeping. Conversely, anxiety leads individuals to feel alert. Racing thoughts and restlessness can lead to insomnia. Those suffering from depression, anxiety, and stress often do not feel rested and refreshed when they wake up affecting day-to-day functioning. Poor sleep can aggravate underlying health conditions and mental health issues causing more distress.

Matters of the heart
Prolonged depression, chronic stress, and anxiety have been associated with various cardiovascular illnesses. Long-term stress increases the production of cortisol in the body leading to inflammation. This inflammation causes plaque build-up in the arteries leading to heart problems. The fight or flight hormone, adrenaline, causes the heart to beat faster causing blood pressure. In an increased frequency, this would eventually damage the heart. Those suffering from chronic mental health concerns are at an increased risk of high blood sugar, cholesterol, heart attack, strokes, hypertension, and more. Decreasing stress and living a healthy life significantly improves heart health leading to longer life.

Weakened immunity
Mental health also fundamentally changes how our body fights infections and viruses. Stress has been associated with a compromised immune system. Prolonged exposure to stress suppresses the immune response by decreasing lymphocytes, the white blood cells that are essential to ward off infections leading to more frequent bouts of common cold and cold sores. It also disables the swift recovery from infections leading to a longer sickness and more fatigue. Poor mental health can also exacerbate any existing underlying autoimmune conductions. Managing stress and anxiety is vital for healthy functions of the immune

Loop of chronic pain
Mental health also shares a bidirectional relationship with chronic pain. Depression can make people more sensitive to pain. This is due to the imbalances of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Low levels of these hormones change our perception of pain. Conditions like fibromyalgia, migraines, and back pain are often linked to mental health concerns. On the other hand, experiencing chronic pain can cause mental health disturbances. It brings about frustration and hopelessness making this a cyclical loop.

Stressed skin
Poor mental health also affects the skin. High stress levels result in oily skin thereby resulting in acne. Increased cortisol causes inflammation which can worsen inflammatory skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema, and rosacea. Those experiencing anxiety often see its manifestation in the form of rashes or skin irritability.

A toll on daily life
Mental health disorders also affect day to day functioning of individuals. Those experiencing depression have low levels of energy and motivation and hence end up not completing tasks, have poor hygiene, and are not able to maintain a balanced life. Individuals dealing with anxiety tend to become hyper-vigilant and fearful in various aspects of every day resulting in a compromised quality of life.

Taking charge of your well-being
Remember, prioritising your mental health is an investment in your overall well-being. By taking care of your mind, you're taking care of your body too. Now that Mehta has outlined the myriad ways in which mental well-being impacts physical health, she suggests adopting a holistic approach that addresses both your mind and body. A healthy mind and body go hand in hand, and by adopting these strategies, you can create a positive cycle that fuels your happiness and physical health.

Move your body, boost your mood
Get your blood pumping! Exercise helps manage poor mental health by allowing the body to release hormones like endorphins and serotonin. These hormones are chemicals that allow your body to feel good resulting in an uplifting mood. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week. They help you manage stress and anxiety better. Indulging in cardiovascular exercises brisk walking, running, swimming, cycling, and playing sports aids the release of the neurotransmitters.

Find calm in the chaos
Meditation helps one feel grounded and at peace. Practices like mindful meditation allow the individual to be in the present moment which in turn helps manage anxiety by reducing spiralling thoughts. It also allows people to view their thoughts as mere thoughts without interacting with them. This practice enables people to not get entangled in a loop of negative thoughts that cause stress or depression.

Feed your gut, feed your mind
The gut and brain are closely linked to each other. The gut produces over 50 essential hormones, one of which is serotonin. Serotonin is also known as the happy hormone as it elevates mood and makes us feel happier. A poor diet can lead to disruptions in the gut microbiota causing an interference with the production of these hormones and aneurotransmitters. This results in low moods, fatigue, and mental health conditions.

Rest and recharge
Poor sleep hygiene can be detrimental to your mental health. Lack of adequate sleep has been shown to change activity in some parts of the brain. This results in irritability, poor decision-making, issues in problem-solving, and trouble controlling emotions. It is important to maintain a consistent sleep schedule with 8 to 9 hours of sleep. Create a relaxing bedtime routine that is easy to follow which signals your body that it is time to sleep. Keep away devices at least half an hour before bedtime as the blue light interferes with sleep. This will aid in the overall improvement of mood and energy levels.

Strength does not mean solo
Having a support system during difficult times can make one feel a sense of belonging and that they are not alone. Speaking to friends and family who are there for you and can help you validate your feelings can help deal with mental health concerns. It can be helpful to confide in a loved one.

Seeking professional help
Oftentimes people underestimate the impact of mental health and its effects on physical health. That coupled with stigma around seeking support leads to poor management of mental health. Therapists and counsellors help in identifying the underlying stressors and can help with various strategies that will help manage the distress better. They provide a safe and confidential space to help you process your emotions and manage mental health concerns. In extreme cases, medical intervention may be necessary. Your mental health professional will guide you through the treatment.

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