Last Updated on March 22, 2021 by Morris Green
In the last few decades, medical professionals have stopped looking at our physical and mental health as two separate realms, and focused instead on the relationship between them. The stress that is so common in many mental illnesses can wreak havoc on your physical health, and trying to manage a chronic illness or disability can be incredibly distressing.
Let’s look at some of the ways this relationship between mind and body might be impacting you or someone you love, and talk about what to do about it.
Stress and your body
Stress can also weaken your immune system, making you more prone to disease–and sometimes, unfairly, less able to cope if you do get a disease. This immune response has even been shown to slow the healing process of a wound.
Sometimes, our bodies can be under so much stress that we feel physically ill, fatigued, nauseous, or in pain. These are known as psychosomatic illnesses. While it may be true that these illnesses are “all in your head”, that doesn’t make them any less serious. You deserve help whenever you are feeling ill, mentally or physically, no matter what the root is.
Chronic illnesses with psychological symptoms
There are many claims out there about certain vitamins, minerals, and supplements that can help with anxiety or depression. Many of these claims have some scientific backing, though most independent reviews on the subject of nutritional deficiencies and mental illnesses will admit that our current research is lacking.
One review of 33 articles covering nearly 11,000 patients found the strongest evidence of improvement in patients taking omega-3 fatty acids. The review also mentioned that while we need better research, Vitamin D supplements have also shown positive benefits.
The best way to ensure you get the nutrients you need is by having a healthy, varied diet, and spending time outdoors. Omega-3 is widely found in fatty fish like salmon and tuna (which you should try to eat twice a week), vitamin D is best found through sunlight, and other vitamins and minerals are found in animal products or by eating a variety of colors of vegetables.
If you’re worried about nutritional deficiencies, or if you’re considering a nutritional supplement to help your mental health, always talk to your doctor first. Some supplements can interfere with other medications you may be taking or exacerbate other conditions.
There is a strong relationship between lack of sleep and mental illnesses. For example, in people with bipolar disorder, manic states can often lead to insomnia–but likewise, insomnia can cause someone with bipolar disorder to enter a manic state. Sometimes insomnia can be helped by lifestyle changes such as getting more exercise or eliminating caffeine. However, there are also many physical illnesses that can cause insomnia–such as diabetes and sleep apnea–and they therefore have a detrimental impact on your mental health.
Some disorders of the endocrine system (the glands that produce your body’s hormones) can also have depression as a symptom or effect.
- Depression is one symptom of hypothyroidism; other symptoms include fatigue, weight gain, dry skin, hair loss, and menstrual problems.
- There is also a strong link between depression and diabetes, though this link is not well understood.
- In addition, people with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) are more at risk for depression.
When your body causes stress
With some of the physical conditions discussed above, it’s difficult to know whether the physical or mental illnesses come first. For example, diabetes can be a very difficult condition to manage and cope with–so even if it does not come with depression biologically, depression may still be a result of the difficulty in managing the condition. This effect can be seen in many chronic illnesses, particularly in illnesses that are physically disabling.
That said, knowing that there is a link between chronic physical illnesses and poor mental health means that we can tackle these problems from both sides. Studies have shown a positive effect from group therapy in breast cancer patients, and cognitive therapy in HIV patients.
What to do
If you are suffering from a chronic physical or mental illness, or you know and love someone who is, here are some steps you can take.
A good foundation
Everyone needs a good foundation of mental health to fall back on when they have bad days. Usually this consists of coping mechanisms like taking a walk, listening to good music, or engaging with a hobby.
But humans weren’t meant to self-care our way through life, either; we also need a good support system to lean on when things get difficult. Your support system should include family and friends who love, support, and listen to you. It may also include a professional mentor or coworker for when you need help solving a work problem that those outside the office wouldn’t understand. And it will often include your healthcare team, which should include good doctors who listen to your needs and concerns.
Having a good support system goes both ways. If you have people you reach out to for support, make sure you reach out to them when you can to ask how they’re doing and offer an ear or a shoulder.
As we’ve seen, managing many mental illnesses starts with a visit to your doctor. You should get your blood checked annually–or however often your doctor recommends–to make sure you don’t have any underlying problems like hypothyroidism or a vitamin deficiency.
And be sure to mention to your doctor if you are experiencing any stress symptoms like changes in sleep, mood, or appetite. Your doctor may recommend that you pursue medication, therapy, or both. This can be especially important if you already have one or more chronic illnesses and are having trouble managing them.
The relationship between your physical and mental health goes both ways. In many cases, improving your mental health through lifestyle changes, medication, or therapy can help your physical health. You may feel less pain or generally feel “lighter” as the burden of stress is released. And at the same time, improving your physical health by having better sleep, a good diet, and managing any chronic illnesses you may have can make a significant improvement on your mental health.
The good news is, since your mind and body are always working together, any one change you make to improve your physical or mental health can cause a ripple effect toward making you feel better overall.
What one change can you make today to improve your physical and mental health?