by Rachel Gore

The connection between mental and physical wellness cannot be understated, yet it’s not often that we stop to think about how closely related they actually are. Physical illnesses, injuries, ailments or conditions can bring on mental health issues. On the other hand, mental health issues can lead to a decrease in proper nutrition, physical fitness and other lifestyle factors that impact physical health. This isn’t just speculation. A breadth of scientific research has identified that the link between mental and physical well-being exists. Here are three major lifestyle factors that can impact–for better or worse–your physical and mental wellbeing:

  • Nutrition
    Most people know an unhealthy diet can have adverse physical health consequences and cause conditions like high blood pressure, obesity and heart disease to develop, but the impacts of poor nutrition go well past that. According to Harvard Medical School, diets high in processed or refined sugars can impair brain function and worsen symptoms of mood disorders like depression.
    This is largely because of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which performs several functions in the body such as regulating mood and sleep. A vast majority (95%) of serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract, so it makes sense that what you choose to eat impacts this production.
    A systematic review published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2014 identified a strong relationship between an unhealthy diet and poor mental health in children and adolescents. Another 2014 systematic review, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that studies overwhelmingly concluded that adults with healthier diets have lower odds of major depression.
    It’s important to note that while these results may indicate that eating a healthy diet lowers the risk of depression, they may also indicate that study participants with depression are less likely to eat healthy (or some combination of these two explanations).
  • Physical activity
    Exercise has benefits beyond keeping you in good shape. It might seem unlikely that exercise is good for your mood when you’re reluctantly getting out of bed for a morning workout, but it’s true. Exercise releases mood-boosting endorphins that reduce emotional stress, bring a sense of well-being, and improve sleep. Staying active can also reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. One study published in Frontiers in  Psychiatry in 2018 found that major depression shortens life expectancy, but exercise is effective in reducing mortality and treating symptoms of depression.
    For those struggling with a mental health condition, exercising is easier said than done. Luckily, you don’t have to become a long-distance runner, join a gym or invest in a personal trainer to reap the benefits. Mustering up the energy to go on just a 10-minute walk can temporarily elevate the mood of people with depression, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association. However, regular exercise offers even more mental health benefits.
  • Sleep
    Sleep plays a critical role in your physical health, yet
    the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
    has found that over one in three American adults aren’t sleeping the recommended seven hours they need for optimal health. And while feeling tired throughout the day may not seem especially serious—especially if you’re the type to combat this sleepiness with coffee every morning— there are several serious health consequences that can result from not enough sleep.
    Poor sleep has been linked to medical conditions such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease (America’s leading cause of death), high blood pressure, impaired immune function and the common cold. It has also been linked to mental health conditions, with the National Sleep Foundation citing that “people with insomnia have greater levels of depression and anxiety than those who sleep normally. They are 10 times as likely to have clinical depression and 17 times as likely to have clinical anxiety.”
    Though not spoken of as frequently as insomnia, oversleeping (or hypersomnia) can be just as detrimental to your health. In fact, hypersomnia is connected to many of the same negative health consequences as insomnia, including heart disease, diabetes and obesity. A 2013 study published in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience found that 40% of young adults with depression experience hypersomnia, which is a strong risk factor for suicide and drastically reduces quality of life.

Balancing your physical and emotional needs by prioritizing a healthy lifestyle is necessary to maximize your overall well-being. Consider making small changes, like swapping out processed snacks with fruits and veggies, using the stairs instead of the elevator at work, and not bringing electronics into bed with you at night so you get the shut-eye you need.