Disease Spotlight: May Is Mental Health Month

This year, the theme for Mental Health Month is Whole Body Mental Health. The focus will be on understanding the relationship between the body’s systems and mental health

Did you know your mental and physical health are closely linked? To emphasize the connection between mental and physical health, the 2018 theme for Mental Health Month is Fitness #4Mind4Body. Mental Health America (MHA), the country’s leading community-based mental health non-profit, is helping people understand how mental and physical health interrelate and identifying simple ways they can improve their overall health and wellness. 

The Connection Between Physical Wellness and Mental Health

The World Health Organization defines “health” as a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being. While people typically think of “mind” and “body” as separate systems, they’re actually deeply connected. For example, people with depression are twice as likely to suffer heart attacks and are more likely to die during a cardiac incident than their non-depressed counterparts. Similarly, up to 50% of cancer patients experience mental health symptoms (especially depression and anxiety) — and their likelihood of survival increases when they get mental health care.

Mental health issues can negatively impact your physical health in many ways:

  • People struggling with serious mental health issues are more likely to use tobacco, alcohol, and other substances.
  • Studies suggest people with depression tend to eat less healthy diets and be physically inactive.
  • Depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions can disrupt your sleep.
  • People with mental health issues might avoid medical treatment and have difficulty following through with treatment recommendations.
  • The pain and uncertainty associated with physical illnesses can exacerbate or trigger depression, anxiety, and mood disorders, which can actually increase pain levels.

For these reasons, taking care of your mental health should be a vital part of your health and wellness plan. In 2018, MHA is focusing on several key lifestyle changes that might improve your physical and mental health, including diet, exercise, gut health, healthy sleep practices, and stress reduction.

A Healthy Diet and Mental Health

Eating a diet filled with processed, fatty, and sugary foods can increase your risk of depression by as much as 60%. Teenagers who eat an unhealthy diet are 80% more likely to experience depression and have a higher likelihood of suffering from ADHD. 

There are several reasons diet can negatively impact mental health. First, your brain is a high-performing organ. It is constantly working and expending energy. When you eat a diet that includes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, legumes, and fish, and olive oil, you’re giving your brain the nutrients it needs to operate smoothly. 

Additionally, a healthy diet can help you control or avoid chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and obesity. The symptoms associated with these conditions can trigger or worsen your mental health issues.

How Exercise Improves Your Health and Wellness

Like a healthy diet, exercise can improve your overall health and help you avoid many chronic conditions. Exercise can also help your body produce substances that encourage healthy brain development and function, including:

  • Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) helps create and protect nerve cells that allow your brain to communicate with the rest of your body 
  • Endorphins minimize stress and pain by providing feelings of happiness or euphoria (this is the chemical responsible for “runners’ high”)
  • Serotonin helps your brain send messages to the rest of your body about appetite, mood, and your need for sleep. While many depression and anxiety medications attempt to boost your serotonin levels, you can also naturally increase them with exercise.
  • Dopamine is involved in your body’s reward-response system and motivation. When dopamine levels are low, you might experience depression and other mental health disorders. 
  • Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate regulate the areas of your brain that control heart rate, emotions, and cognition

Studies suggest that regularly exercising for an hour each week can help you decrease your depression and anxiety and improve your overall mood. Exercise might also help you combat substance abuse issues. 

How Gut Health Improves Your Mental Health

While exercise can help increase serotonin levels and other neurotransmitters, most of these chemicals are created in your gastrointestinal system. Your gut also contains millions of neurons that transmit feelings and emotions throughout your body. When your gastrointestinal system’s balance is off due to the wrong combination of bacteria and other organisms, it can negatively impact your serotonin levels and nervous system function.

Eating a healthy, “clean” diet that avoids processed foods and sugar can foster gut health. You can also incorporate probiotics and naturally fermented foods (such as pickles, kimchi, miso, and kombucha) into your diet to aid in digestion.

Sleep Deprivation Can Worsen Your Mental Health Conditions

Depression and anxiety can disrupt your sleep. Unfortunately, fatigue can also make your mental health worse. When we get sufficient, uninterrupted sleep, our brains and bodies have a chance to rest and heal. Poor sleep patterns can negatively impact all bodily functions, including your ability to think and control your emotions.

Adults should try to get roughly eight hours of quality sleep each night. If you’re having problems sleeping, you should try the following lifestyle changes:

  • Put yourself on a regular sleep schedule (even on the weekends)
  • Avoid nicotine, drinking, and food right before going to bed
  • Minimize the number of distractions (such as bright lights, televisions, and electronic devices) you keep in your bedroom
  • Avoid late afternoon naps
  • Try not to exercise right before bed — your increased endorphin levels might make sleep difficult
  • Get outside during the day. Exposure to sunlight can help regulate your body’s sleep cycles

If none of these tips help, discuss your sleep problems with your doctor.

Stress Can Exacerbate Your Physical and Mental Health Issues

Stress is a part of life. However, excessive, chronic stress can damage your immune system, disrupt your sleep, and change your body’s chemistry. It can also aggravate physical conditions such as muscle tension, stomach pain, digestive issues, and high blood pressure. 

If you’re struggling with overwhelming stress, reach out to your doctor or mental health provider. You might benefit from behavioral therapy or mindfulness training. You also should try to incorporate exercise and enjoyable activities or hobbies into your normal routine.

Simple Lifestyle Changes Can Improve Your Mental Health

If you are struggling with depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues, you should schedule an appointment with a mental or behavioral health provider affiliated with your carrier partner (Health Net and UnitedHealthcare). Depending on your plan and carrier, you might not need a referral for some behavioral health services. However, if you’re struggling with thoughts of suicide, self-harm, or harming others, you should immediately report to an emergency department for mental health treatment.

In addition to seeking medical care, improve your lifestyle by making simple changes to your diet, increasing your physical activity, and changing your sleep habits. This doesn’t mean you have to join a gym, completely cut sugar from your diet, or start running marathons. Instead, try to add 15-20 minutes of moderate exercise to your daily routine, cut back on processed foods, and commit to eating more fruits and vegetables. 

During May, you can also participate in MHA’s #4Mind4Body Challenge. Each day, the organization will post a simple challenge online designed to improve your physical and mental health.