When we’re battling with poor mental health, our physical health can get caught in the crossfire.
There’s robust scientific evidence showing stress and mental health problems can heighten the risk for a variety of physical ailments. But the interaction between mental and physical health conditions can work both ways and is incredibly complex.
Sometimes, poor mental health appears to directly affect our bodily systems, and other times the impact of mental health issues can be more indirect, potentially triggering changes in our behavior, with damaging knock-on effects for physical health.
Below we’ve listed 10 ways mental health can affect your physical health.
1. Sleep problems
Stress is notorious for stealing our sleep. Sleeping problems, such as not being able to drift offa or waking in the night, are often linked with mental health issues, particularly depression and anxiety.
What’s worse is that a lack of sleep can trigger worrying about sleep, which feeds into a vicious cycle of sleep deprivation and chronic tiredness. A consistent lack of sleep costs our physical health dearly by impacting our immune system’s ability to fight infection and heightening our risk for certain diseases.
2. Risk of heart disease
Research has revealed that depression can worsen existing heart conditions and increase the risk of developing cardiovascular problems in the future.
One study found high levels of depression increased the probability of heart attacks even when accounting for a range of other risk factors. Although this study did not establish cause and effect, the researchers speculated that increased activation of the body’s stress response in people with depression may play a role.
3. A drop in physical activity
Physical activity is vital for keeping our bodies and minds in check. But when mental health issues weigh heavily on our minds, we may feel more tired and our activity levels can take a dive.
Being very inactive in the long term can increase our risk for physical health conditions, such as diabetes and cancer. Thankfully, this relationship is mutual. When our mental and physical health is good, physical activity typically rises, triggering a positive chain reaction with rewards for mental and physical health.
The link between mental and physical health is complicated and may evolve over time. So one way researchers explore the larger health impact of mental health issues is by looking at mortality (death) rates.
Sadly, research has found that a history of mental health disorders, such as depression, schizophrenia, and personality disorders (among others) are linked with an increased risk of mortality from a range of causes. Therefore, mental health disorders may be linked with health vulnerabilities that ultimately lead to premature mortality.
5. Food choices
When we’re stressed or dealing with poor mental health, we can switch up our eating habits too. Some conditions, such as depression, can alter appetite, potentially leading to overeating or undereating. Other times, we may turn to sugary or high-fat foods for comfort.
Of course, what we put into our bodies can have a direct impact on our physical health and energy levels. But our eating habits, such as eating regularly and getting enough protein and nutrient-dense foods, are also important for balancing our mood day to day.
6. Substance abuse and smoking
Mental health issues may increase the likelihood we turn to alcohol, illegal drugs, and cigarettes as a way to cope or feel better in the short term. Over time, consuming harmful substances in excess can take a considerable toll on physical and mental health.
7. Compromised immune function
Stress, from any source, can trigger a sequence of physiological events that are designed to help us deal with challenging situations.
In the short term, this is nothing to worry about—stress is a very normal part of life. However, when this becomes chronic, certain chemicals released in the body can negatively impact our immune system, which could leave us more vulnerable to physical health problems.
Psoriasis is a skin condition that can be brought on by stress and is associated with red, itchy, and flaky patches of skin.
Although this condition may be triggered by stress initially, psoriasis can negatively affect wellbeing too. People with psoriasis often experience stigma or feelings of humiliation, which can have a significant impact on their mental health.
9. Difficulty seeking health information
Poor mental health can sometimes undermine decision-making or make it harder to seek health information or treatment when we need it.
If our mental health is poor and it’s a struggle just to get through the day, or we’re extremely worried about the physical symptoms we’re experiencing, we may delay a call to the doctor. Being less able to obtain knowledge and treatment that can help us stay well has the potential to negatively affect our physical and mental wellbeing over time.
10. Digestive issues
When we’re stressed out, our stomach is often the first organ to let us know. Stress and depression have been linked to numerous digestive health problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome and functional dyspepsia.
Corticotropin-releasing hormone is a key player in the body’s stress response system and is believed to be one culprit of certain digestive diseases. The hormone serotonin is important for regulating emotions and may also play a part in the relationship between mental health and gut health.
When we’re feeling stressed or facing mental health issues, our physical health can take a tumble too.
The physical health issues outlined here are not an encyclopedic list of problems—physical health problems may show up differently depending on the person. If you’re experiencing mental and/or physical health problems it’s important to seek help or advice from your doctor or mental health professional if you need to.
When seeking therapy for mental health, particularly over this past year, many people find online therapy to be a valuable and accessible option that can easily fit around a demanding schedule.
BetterHelp is one online therapy provider that actively seeks to match clients with therapists who can support them with their specific needs and concerns. There is a range of accredited mental health professionals you can speak to, including counselors, psychologists, and family therapists.
Although poor mental health often has consequences for physical health, the intimate connection between mental and physical health can work to your advantage too. Looking after your mental health can keep your body happy and tending to your physical health offers benefits for your mind.
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