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Mind and Body and Your Immune System

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Mind and Body and Your Immune System

Mind-Body Connection: How Mental Health Affects Our Physical Well-Being

What is the mind-body connection? Does mental health really play a role in our physical well-being? You may be surprised just how closely connected our minds and bodies really are. In honor of National Yoga Month in September, we’re taking a look at how our mental health affects how we feel overall.

In our modern world, we have performed miraculous feats with the help of Western medicine: treating deadly cancers, giving a second chance for life after a heart attack. Your doctor can help you manage your weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol in order to minimize your risk for otherwise fatal illnesses. But mental health has largely been left out of that equation.

One important reason for this was the classic belief that the body and mind were separate entities. That belief shaped modern medicine as we know it and has powered the way doctors treat patients in primary care offices.

But research conducted over the last decade has shown that mental and physical health are much more closely connected than we thought. This new research may open up new avenues for treating patients, incorporating mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation into traditional treatment plans for a well-rounded, whole person approach to medicine. 

mind-body connection national yoga month

Is Mental Health Connected to Physical Health?

Scientists are exploring how our mental and physical health are connected and how these systems interact with each other to affect our overall health.

One study, published in 2019 in the journal Health Psychology, analyzed the effects of depression and anxiety on physical health and found that depression and anxiety were just as bad for physical health as smoking cigarettes and obesity.

The study included over 15,000 retirees who were interviewed about their symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as their weight, history of smoking, and any diagnosed medical conditions.

The researchers found that the people living with high levels of anxiety and depression were 65% more likely to develop a heart condition, 64% more likely to have a stroke, 50% more likely to develop high blood pressure, and 87% more likely to have arthritis than people who did not have anxiety or depression.

These are similarly increased odds compared to those who smoke or are obese, according to the researchers, and for arthritis, it appeared anxiety and depression put people at an even higher risk than either smoking or obesity.

While this and other studies seem to demonstrate that the mind-body connection is real, it’s still unclear exactly how the mind and body interact and affect overall health. The mind and body are extremely complicated and we are still learning a lot about how it all works. 

mind-body connection national yoga month

A Complicated System

The mind and body affect each other and they, in turn, are affected by our outside environment, our past experiences, and our present situations. A group of researchers aimed to put this into context, and published their findings in 2017 in Social Science and Medicine.

Our mental and physical health, they found, are determined by our social interactions; our lifestyle choices, including how physically active we are, what we eat, and whether we smoke or drink alcohol; our socio-economic status, like our income, our job conditions, and retirement prospects; and biological factors, like stress and cognitive abilities.

These direct and indirect pathways affect us physically and mentally, and are intertwined in a complicated system. For example, study authors found that past social interactions played a significant role in a person’s overall mental and physical health, and people with past good mental health were less likely to smoke cigarettes.

This means our choices can affect our health and our health can affect our choices. Not to mention how situations outside of our control, both environmentally and biologically, affect us too.

This complicated web continues to be explored by scientists, and is reshaping how we think about our health from a clinical perspective. No longer is it enough to consider only physical conditions when dealing with health problems. We must also consider how our emotional health is playing a role too. 

What does this all mean for our everyday health and wellness? To honor the mind-body connection, we should be prioritizing our mental and emotional health the way we prioritize our physical health.

mind-body connection national yoga month

Mental Health and Your Immune System

If mental health can affect our physical health, does that mean it can also affect our immune system? The answer is: absolutely!

Our immune system is a vast network of cells, organs, and proteins all working together to fight off invaders. When a virus or bacteria enters our body, our immune system protects us from getting sick.

Our immune system is made up of two parts: the innate system (the part we are born with) and the acquired system (the part that develops over time as we interact with our environment). A well-functioning immune system will protect us against invaders and help us stay healthy. We can positively affect our immune system and keep it strong by leading a healthy lifestyle.

It’s well-known that exercising and eating a healthy diet can help build a strong immune system. Whole foods rich in antioxidants, like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and nuts and legumes, help reduce inflammation—one of the leading causes of heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.

Taking supplements like black elderberry can also provide immune system support. Elderberries contain as much as two times the antioxidants as other berries and can help strengthen your immune system.*

But what about our mental state? Do our thoughts and emotions have an impact on our immune systems?

Scientific research over the last few decades has shown a strong link between our mental health and immune system response. The two systems work in similar ways; both are used to interact with and adjust to our ever-changing environments.

People who suffer from immune diseases are also more likely to suffer from mental health disorders, like anxiety and depression, and people who suffer from mental health disorders are more susceptible to immune diseases.

Researchers are now trying to demonstrate how these dynamic and ever-changing systems work together and affect one another. 

mind-body connection national yoga month

How Do We Honor the Mind-Body Connection?

Our physical and mental health is closely intertwined, and science is showing us that we can affect our emotional health much in the same way we affect our physical health—through positive lifestyle choices. But what do those choices look like?

Here are some ways to enhance your emotional well-being, which, in turn, can enhance your physical and overall well-being.

Practice Yoga

Yoga is a great way to marry the body and mind together in one practice. Yoga allows you to slow down, stretch, strengthen, and meditate all at the same time.

Yoga focuses on the breath, poses, and meditation, and can help you reduce stress, lower your heart rate, improve physical performance, and manage chronic illnesses such as heart disease and high blood pressure.

There are many different styles of yoga, so find the one that’s right for you. Jump on YouTube to find thousands of free yoga classes for all levels, or join a local yoga studio or MeetUp group to start your practice and meet new people at the same time.

Practice mindfulness 

Mindfulness is a type of meditation that involves breathing methods, guided imagery, and other practices to relax the body and mind. It is a great way to reduce stress and is designed to help you focus on the emotions you are feeling in the moment without judgment or interpretation.

Mindfulness can help relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression and interact more meaningfully with the world around you. It may also help those with asthma and fibromyalgia.

There are many ways to practice mindfulness, including body scan meditation, sitting meditation, and walking meditation. Focusing on your breath, living in the moment, and accepting yourself are all ways to practice mindfulness.

mind-body connection national yoga month

Keep a Journal

Writing consistently in a journal can help you stay mindful, boost your immune system, help you sleep better, and improve your memory and communication skills.

Keeping a journal will help you organize your thoughts and allow you to analyze your own emotions. It helps us make sense of trauma, and can improve our mental and even physical wellbeing. It’s also a relatively inexpensive form or selfcare and self-healing.

Do Something You Love Every Day

Taking time out of your hectic schedule, even if it’s just 10 or 20 minutes, to do something you love or that relaxes your mind, can have tremendous effects on your emotional well-being.

Even if it’s just getting outside at lunchtime and going for a walk around the block, that few minutes is a much-needed mental break from the stress and sensory overload we experience every day.

Speak with a Therapist

It’s 2020 and therapy is finally being normalized. Everyone could benefit from speaking with a licensed, unbiased 3rd party about their experiences, traumas, anxieties, fears, and struggles, even in the short term.

Therapy isn’t just about treating mental health disorders, it’s also about seeking emotional wellness—something everyone can benefit from. Therapy can enhance and enrich your life, whether you’re experiencing stress at work, concerned about a relationship, or looking to attain your own personal potential.

Keep in mind that therapy can be expensive, and it may take several tries before you find the therapist that’s right for you. 

mind-body connection national yoga month

Emotional Health Affects Physical Health and Immunity

Our understanding of how our emotional health plays a role in our physical and immune system health is still evolving. It is clear, however, that mental health is just as important as physical health when it comes to our overall well-being.

When you take care of your emotional health, your physical health will benefit. Practicing yoga and mindfulness, keeping a journal, and speaking with a therapist are just some of the ways we can honor our mind-body connection and live a healthier, happier life. Find the practices that work best for you and enjoy the healthy benefits that follow.

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