What is the Mind-Body Connection? + 8 Ways to Take Control of Your Health
Studies have demonstrated compelling links between our mental, spiritual and physical well being. Even the World Health Organization recognizes this, defining health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
The foods we eat, the water we drink, the media we consume, the people in our lives – all impact our basic biological markers, energy, and disease prevention or proliferation. When you understand the intricacies of this interplay, you can harness that knowledge and take control of your health in new and exciting ways. This is the mind-body connection.
The Science Linking Physical and Mental Health
We often refer to the mind-body connection when we have a “gut feeling,” or feel “heartbroken,” for example. These supposed figures of speech actually reflect neurological and hormonal changes that produce a physical reaction.
An excellent example of this mind-body interplay is the gut-brain axis (GBA), or the bidirectional link between the brain and the gut. When you have that gut feeling or butterflies in your tummy, you are actually experiencing the communication between the central (intrinsic) nervous system and the enteric nervous system (ENS).
It works like this: The ENS is housed in the gut, which contains around 500 million neurons. These neurons are directly connected to your brain via the vagus nerve. This principal nerve sends messages from the gut to the brain and vice versa. Studies show that when vagus nerve activity is impaired by stress or other mental and emotional stimuli, digestive problems often ensue.
Other studies have shown that neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) produced by certain emotions can have powerful physical influences, like a rise in blood pressure, increased heart rate, trouble sleeping, fluctuations in appetite, and more.
Health Factors You Can Control
Let’s look more closely at specific factors that impact our health on a daily basis.
Food is, hands-down, a primary foundation for whole-body health. A diet rich in nutrient-dense, whole foods allows your body to function with ease. Nutritious foods provide the building blocks of protein, healthy fats, fiber, and nutrients that your body needs for optimal function. But even the healthiest diets can be undermined by stress.
The sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the “fight or flight” response, reacts to stress by slowing digestion. The body must be in a parasympathetic nervous state to absorb and assimilate nutrients. This is often called the “rest and digest” state. If you’ve ever had loose stools or stomach pain during times of heightened stress, you’ve experienced this first-hand. (3)
Around 73% of your brain tissue is made up of water and research has shown dehydration can play a role in anxiety, depression, and mental health complications. Dehydration can also decrease blood circulation, increase blood viscosity, and fatigue.
Since most people don’t drink enough water it’s often easy to stick to this simple rule of thumb: the recommended amount of daily water intake is half of your body weight in ounces per day. So a person weighing 160 pounds should try to drink 80 ounces of water every day.(4), (5)
Keep in mind, the quality of the water you drink is important. Toxins are abundant in tap water and can have serious health consequences. Contaminants in tap water often include heavy metals, pesticides, and toxins from plastic pollution. But drinking clean water won’t help if you’re using a bottle that contaminates your water. Plastic water bottles (even the ones that claim to be BPA free) often leach into your water especially as they are heated and cooled. Borosilicate glass bottles are inert and resistant to chemical changes. This makes them a better choice than plastic or lower-quality glass bottles that can have a lasting and negative impact on your health.
If you need another reason to switch to borosilicate glass, consider this: plastic water bottles wreak havoc on our planet. The unfathomable amount of plastic dumped into our oceans ends up in the very foods we eat via marine life and sewage sludge, a by-product of sewage water treatment that is often contaminated with microplastics.
For starters, exercising will release endorphins, a neurotransmitter that helps reduce pain and stress. Exercise also stimulates the release of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which are brain chemicals that play an important role in mood regulation. (6)
Regular physical activity can regulate stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. However, exercise is subject to the “Goldilocks principle.” Too much or too little can actually cause more stress, so finding the right balance for your body and lifestyle is key.
There’s also a lot to be said about choosing an activity you actually enjoy. If going to the gym is not your thing, don’t pressure yourself to go. Instead, find ways to move your body that bring you joy. If you’re not sure where to start, try hiking, biking, dancing, martial arts, walking, or swimming.
Short-term, acute stress is not only normal, but necessary. It enabled our ancestors to run from predators, and it prepares us for major life events. When stress hormones are balanced, acute stress protects us and ensures our survival.
What isn’t normal, however, is the chronic, high level of stress we commonly experience in modern society. Long-term, heightened stress makes you feel jittery, anxious, and irritable. It is also linked to digestive issues, compromised immunity, and impaired brain health.
To understand stress and the mind-body connection, let’s define a communication loop in the body called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This axis communicates top-down: The brain signals to your hypothalamus, which in turn sends a chemical signal to the pituitary gland, which releases adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) to turn on the cortisol and adrenaline output from the adrenals (the glands that release stress hormones).
This loop breaks down when you experience chronic, heightened stress. When cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone, reaches high levels, it suppresses both the hypothalamus and pituitary gland so the body can better regulate the fight-or-flight response. This can cause adrenal dysfunction, commonly referred to as “adrenal fatigue” in the integrative medicine world. Adrenal fatigue can lead to anxiety, depression, fatigue, cravings of salty and sugary foods, difficulty sleeping, headaches, body pain, moodiness, and difficulty losing weight.
Stress also affects sex hormones. In men, chronic stress can contribute to low testosterone, which is linked to sadness, lethargy, and apathy. Stress-related female hormone imbalances can contribute to anxiety, depression, low libido, and insomnia. (7).
Now that you have learned a bit about the relationship between the mind and body, let’s look at a few strategies that can help support both.
Eight Ways to Support a Healthy Mind and Body
The following eight practices can foster a deeper mind-body connection. Keep in mind that these are just that: practices. While you may not experience change overnight, they will support you on your path towards mind and body wellness.
The ancient practice of meditation can benefit everyone if they are willing to put aside a few minutes every day – meditation is a practice that pays big dividends. Studies show significant benefits for the mind and body, such as lower stress and anxiety, better emotional health, improved sleep, longer attention span, and reduced memory loss. (8)
Mind-body movement practices aim to cultivate mindfulness, or attentiveness to your body and its wellbeing. Workouts that challenge the mind and body strengthen this important mind-body connection by connecting breath to movement, and engaging the brain while you move. Great options include Tai Chi, Qigong, yoga, martial arts, walking, meditation, dance, gardening, agility and balance training, or team sports.
3. Clean diet
There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to diet, but choosing whole foods instead of processed foods will benefit everyone. Shoot for a balance of protein, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, and nutrient-dense vegetables and fruits.
Protein can come from animals (fish, meat, eggs, dairy) or plants (beans, whole grains, tempeh, hemp protein powder, nuts and seeds, nutritional yeast, and spirulina). Healthy fats include olives and olive oil; nuts, seeds, and nut butters; avocado, coconut, and coconut oil; and naturally occurring fats from wild fish and grass-fed meats. Complex carbs might include whole grains, beans, and legumes. And everyone should make an effort to incorporate a wide variety of vegetables and fruits in their diet.
4. Clean water
Choosing a clean water source is key. We recommend learning more about spring water as an alternative to tap. Plastic water bottles often leach synthetic chemicals, so do your research and consider investing in a non-toxic, heat-resistant water bottle made from borosilicate glass.
5. Avoiding toxins whenever possible
Along with eliminating toxins by avoiding processed foods and choosing clean water, be on the lookout for other places you can decrease your exposure. You can make a difference by looking for alternatives to caustic household cleaning products, chemical-laden personal hygiene products, makeup, plastic water bottles, and packaged foods.
Visit the Environmental Working Group’s cosmetic database to learn more about your personal care products.
6. Learning how to say “no”
Many people find themselves saying “yes” too often. As a result, they feel overwhelmed, tired, resentful, and overrun. Maybe you struggle to say “no” to your kids or other family members, friends, or colleagues. Being helpful and generous is rewarding, but if you are burned out, it’s time to reevaluate.
Take stock of the obligations in your life that feel overwhelming, and think about what you can eliminate. This might include events, social gatherings, or your proximity to toxic relationships. Seek professional help from a therapist if needed.
Implementing a bit of self-care every day can make a world of difference. Even 10 minutes is enough time to indulge in an activity that brings you a sense of peace. This could be deep breathing, a hot bath, a weekly social gathering, playing music, or a walk in your neighborhood. Prioritizing yourself will allow you to take care of others in your life.
8. Social support
Feeling supported by friends, family, and community is essential for stress resilience and quality of life. (9) If you find yourself in a daily routine without social support, make a list of ways this could change. You might consider a weekly outing with friends, a team sport, a religious or spiritual gathering, phone calls with loved ones that live far away, local hiking, or other meet-up groups. Be creative, and don’t underestimate the power of community.
True health encompasses mind, body, and spirit. But there is no one-size-fits-all approach to fostering a healthy mind-body connection – we are all biochemically unique.
Taking charge requires a comprehensive approach that includes a whole foods diet, exercise, clean water, self-care, social support, and meditation or similar mindfulness techniques. With some effort, you will realize the interconnectedness between your mind and body, and it will allow you to stand at the helm of your ship, guiding you towards a more connected, and rewarding journey.