Western medicine tends to compartmentalize illness. Doctors treat every woe like a distinct problem — a broken leg, a sore tooth, a depressed mind. The reality is far more complex.
The human body works together as a holistic unit. What happens with one system affects others, and what’s going on in your mind can impact your body and vice-versa. Let’s explore the link between physical and mental health.
Poor Mental Health Can Lead to Harmful and Neglectful Behaviors Impacting Your Physical Health
Nearly everyone can remember at least one event when their mental health evoked physical symptoms. Think back to the last time you felt nervous. You probably felt slightly sick, maybe even developing nausea and diarrhea. Like rapper Eminem says in his hit song “Lose Yourself,” your palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy.
Ongoing mental health woes can create a ripple effect, putting you at risk for multiple physical ailments. For example, people with eating disorders run a higher risk of dental cavities as nutritional deficiencies affect tooth strength and health. Furthermore, acid erosion from purging episodes can erode tooth enamel. Even mild anxiety can cause bruxism or tooth grinding that causes severe damage, and repairing it doesn’t come cheap — increasing financial stress that adds to the patient’s woes.
Teeth aren’t the only thing that people with mental health disorders frequently overlook. One of the main symptoms of depression is fatigue. This overwhelming tiredness can arise from sleep problems, poor diet, stress, or medications. The result? Such individuals often lack the energy for exercise, an activity crucial for preventing everything from cancer to type 2 diabetes.
Exercise prevents 13 different types of cancer by helping control your weight and maintaining optimal hormone levels, including insulin, and strengthening the immune system. Additionally, it feels good, stimulating the production of endorphins, natural body chemicals that ease pain and stress both. A brisk walk can ease mild depression, but more severe cases of the blues can leave you confined to your couch.
Mental health also affects your diet. The stress produced by anxiety disorders accelerates cortisol production, a hormone that can affect your appetite. In some people, it makes you not want to eat at all. Others find themselves craving high-calorie and fat-laden snacks as their body tries to prepare for what it perceives as a continued onslaught.
The added pounds put you at an elevated risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. These conditions, in turn, increase your heart and kidney disease risks. Reversing the cycle early by addressing your mental health concerns can break the downward spiral.
Poor Physical Health Can Increase Mental Health Symptoms
The mind-body connection works in the opposite direction as well. People with chronic health conditions often have comorbid anxiety and depression and sometimes experience other mental disorders. Multiple factors contribute to the pressure.
For example, many patients with invisible disabilities struggle to get their needs met due to other people’s perceptions that they don’t need accommodations to succeed in work or at school if they look fine. The pressure they feel increased substantially amid the current pandemic.
For example, those with autoimmune disorders might look outwardly fine but run a risk of severe complications from the novel coronavirus. Accommodations such as social distancing, plexiglass barriers, ultraviolet sanitizing lights, and mask requirements can help protect such individuals from catching the disease.
Unfortunately, the most vulnerable, lowest-paid workers — those who can’t afford to leave their jobs to protect their health — are often the most vulnerable. Cashiers at grocery stores and convenience store clerks often endure up-close confrontations with angry, sometimes hostile, customers who violate their personal space and refuse to follow signage requesting mask use. Business owners often side with the paying public, leaving such workers with no choice but to endure the risk or lose the work they need to pay their bills.
Another issue that’s unique to the United States is how health care costs can destroy lives, leading those with physical ailments to develop mental conditions. Over half a million Americans file for bankruptcy each year, and those are the ones who can afford such legal proceedings.
Other people lose their life savings and homes in an attempt to pay for treatment. Many homeless individuals live rough when rising costs and mounting bills preclude them from getting housing. The effects of losing everything one worked for due to medical debt can devastate mental health.
Poverty can also lead to low birth weight and poor natal outcomes, passing the trouble to the next generation. It also causes inadequate nutrition and increases the chances an individual will be exposed to dangerous toxins or criminal acts of violence.
The Link Between Physical and Mental Health
Although Western medicine tends to compartmentalize illnesses, the reality is that the human body and mind work as one. Understanding the link between physical and mental health can lead to improved outcomes.