Is there a relationship between our mind and our body? Can our mental health influence our physical health – and vice versa? How can we increase the chances of having a healthy mind in a healthy body?
“There is no real division between mind and body because of networks of communication that exist between the brain and neurological, endocrine and immune systems,” Oakley Ray, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Psychiatry and Pharmacology at Vanderbilt University (Nashville, USA).
The Power of the Mind? - We have probably all heard of the placebo effect. MedicineNet.com explains, ‘Expectation plays a potent role in the placebo effect. The more a person believes they are going to benefit from a treatment, the more likely it is that they will experience a benefit.'
The Placebo Effect in action - An interesting example was shown on TV. A group of people suffering from insomnia had tried various means of getting to sleep, without success. They were then given pills by a doctor and advised that these were very powerful and should therefore be taken only as directed. Within a few days the insomniacs reported they were now sleeping soundly. The ‘pills’ they had been given were dummies with no active pharmaceutical ingredient. If the ‘pills’ hadn’t made the difference, what had? Presumably the signals the brain sent to the body when it expected a powerful intervention to help it sleep.
The Immune Brain Loop - Researchers now refer to the ‘Immune Brain Loop’ to describe the sometimes complex ways in which the brain sends signals to the body’s immune system and vice versa. The Psychoneuroimmunology Research Society is an international organization for researchers from a wide range of scientific and medical disciplines who are interested in interactions between the nervous system and the immune system, and the relationship between behaviour and health.
Can mental stress make us physically ill?
Stress can result in an increased risk of illness, including:
- The common cold (in Professor Sheldon Cohen’s research - apparently from a reduced ability to regulate inflammatory responses).
- Heart disease (in the view of the World Heart Federation)
- Diabetes (according to a 35 year study in Sweden)
- Autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis (as in this small study published in 2014).
Might mental health affect our physical health?
Mental illness appears to shorten physical life expectancy significantly for both men and women.For example a 10 year study of over 5,800 people in the US found that depression appeared to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular causes, like heart attack and stroke.
One possible explanation is that depression may have had an evolutionary value. It seems to have provided short term help in fighting infection (a major source of death for thousands of years) through changes it triggered in the body. However, it has become counterproductive as people live longer and infection becomes less of a risk, and as the changes triggered in the body proved harmful over the longer term.
A Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body?
The relationship between mind and body is a two way process. For example:
- If you’re overweight you may be at greater risk of stress related diseases, according to researchers at Brandeis University
- Physical exercise appears to reduce the symptoms of depression - and may even reduce the risk of becoming depressed.
- People who are obese and have other physical symptoms of metabolic syndrome (like high blood pressure, an inability to control blood sugar levels and abnormal cholesterol levels) appear to experience a more rapid cognitive decline (i.e. a decline in the functioning of their mind) than people who are a normal weight.
- Eating a healthy Mediterranean Diet seems to slow the rate of cognitive decline as we age and reduces the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
- Education (exercising our mind) seems to have a number of physical health benefits
- So too does positive thinking.
So, it seems that what we do to and with our body can affect what happens to our mind – and vice versa.
- Our mind can influence our body (as with the placebo effect) – and vice versa.
- Stress, depression and mental illness all appear to increase the risk of physical illness – and if prolonged may shorten life expectancy.
- Fortunately there are sources of support to help here (as in the right hand column).
- What is good for our bodies seems to be good for our brains. If we are a normal weight, exercise and eat a healthy diet we reduce the risk of depression, dementia and cognitive decline.
- What is good for our brains also seems to be good for our bodies, with a range of mind related factors from education to having a purpose in life associated with living longer.
- So following a healthy lifestyle (as explained in more detail on the Age Watch website) is likely to be good for both your body and your brain.
Reviewed and updated by Laura Symes January 2015. Next review date November 2019.