by Dr Becky Spelman  

21st July 2016

"The mind-body connection, why we need to look after both"

There was a time when scientists and psychologists believed that the mind and body were essentially separate, and that there was little relationship between physical and mental health. Now, however, we know that this is very far from the truth. We humans are complex creatures, and every part of our organism reacts with, and potentially impacts, every other. These complex relationships are still being studied, but we know much more about how physical and mental health impact on each other than ever before.

It is easy to understand how chronic or life-threatening illness, for example, could contribute to problems such as depression, but the reality is actually extremely nuanced. Hormonal imbalances, a poor diet, problems with our intestinal flora and a lack of exercise can all have proven links to mental well-being. At the same time, issues with mental health can have a real and measurable effect on our physical health. Chronic depression can reduce the immune system's effectiveness, leading to more frequent illness. Ongoing stress and anxiety can contribute to problems such as irritable bowel syndrome and other stress related disorders, and problems with the reproductive system can contribute to emotional distress. There may even be a link between mental ill-health and devastating illnesses such as cancer.

As a psychologist, all too often I meet people who have become stuck in a self-regenerating cycle of poor physical health leading to poor mental health (or visa versa) in what appears to be a continuous loop that they just can't break. I'll give you an example. A client of mine (we'll call him Jake) had developed depression in his early twenties. As he didn't receive any professional help for a number of years, he did what many people do and turned to self-medication in the form of alcohol, cigarettes and, occasionally, marijuana. He dropped out of work and his self-esteem was very low. He rarely bothered to cook a decent meal and tended to survive on takeouts. He didn't exercise enough. Inevitably, his physical health started to suffer, with frequent minor infections, an irritable bowel and because he had become overweight, the risk of developing diabetes. The more his health declined, the worse Jake's depression became and the more tempted he was to reach for the bottle. Although Jake certainly needed treatment and therapy for his depression and its underlying cause, we decided to tackle both aspects of his ill-health at the same time. 

We started with baby steps by encouraging him to cook simple, halthy meals more often, and to take probiotics to replenish his intestinal flora, which had been devastated by both his poor diet and the frequent courses of antibiotics he had had to take. As there are proven links between intestinal health and depression, Jake actually started to feel quite a bit better after a couple of months of probiotics and eating better meals. His depression hadn't completely gone away and he still needed to continue with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), but it had become easier for him to engage with the process and envision a future that was brighter. He felt that he had more energy, and started to walk more, as a result of which his weight approached healthy levels and his self esteem improved considerably. 

While it is important not to over-simplify, research shows that our physical health, which has everything to do with what we put into our bodies and how we treat them, really matters for our psychological well-being. As a psychologist, I have seen real-life examples of this on countless occasions. 

So, what do I suggest? If someone is experiencing psychological difficulties, I would always recommend that they attend a suitable form of therapy for their condition. At the same time, I encourage them to look carefully at their lifestyles and diets and see where they can make some positive changes. Many are very simple: by increasing the amount of fresh green vegetables, berries and organic foods we eat, we are providing our bodies with the nourishment and fibre they need to work effectively. A lot of people also benefit from nutritional supplements, and might want to consult a dietician or nutritionist for advice on what would help them most. Vitamin C and Vitamin B complex are useful for many people, as are antioxidants and omegas. All of these products are available in high street health food shops and even some supermarket. Most of us can increase our activity levels simply by walking more often and farther than we usually do, or by joining a class that we enjoy, while stress can be managed more easily by complementing our therapy with meditation or mindfulness practice.

Understanding a little more about the complex links between mind and body, and nurturing our physical well-being, can have a dramatic positive impact on our psychological health.