The link between mental and physical health

Early Egyptian, Chinese, Greek and Roman texts reveal that many cultures throughout history have adopted the concept that the mind impacts the body. These accounts have begun to gain credibility within the past two hundred years through the works of Mesmer and the physiological results on men screened for military service during WWI.   Within the last few decades, research has solidified the idea that the mental health has an impact on the physical body and the physical body can impact mental health.

Evidence of the mind-body connection can be seen in lifestyle behaviors that can make the difference between healthy outcomes and disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC 2004), lifestyle is the largest factor (53%) in predicting your health outcomes.  The other factors include medical at 10 %, environment at 21% and genetics/body makeup 16%.

Dr. Tim Armstrong from the World Health Organization (WHO) Department of Chronic Diseases and Health Promotion tells us how a healthy lifestyle makes a difference:

“Non-communicable diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes account for 35 million deaths each year. This is 60% of all deaths. And these diseases have common risk factors: tobacco use, inappropriate diet and physical inactivity. By avoiding these risk factors in the first place, by preventing the risk factors, we can prevent the majority of deaths due to those diseases.” According to the National Institute of Health:

  • An estimated 26% of adults have a diagnosable mental illness.
  • About 21% of children ages 9 to 17 have a diagnosable mental or addictive illness.
  • One in 2 of us will have a mental health issue during our lifetime.

Less than one-third of adults with a mental health issue will get help.

  • Up to 90% of those who get help are able to significantly reduce their symptoms.

Research by Wareham and Bingham shows there are four health behaviors that can add 14 extra years to your life:

“Being smoke free, exercising, moderate alcohol intake, eating 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day.”

Listed below are comparative costs, spending and prevalence of disease:

Substance Cost to Society NIH Spending Prevalence
Alcohol/Drugs $446B 1.5B 22 million
Cancer $219B 5.5B 10 million
Tobacco $201B 0.5B 25 million
Diabetes $154B 1.0B 16 million
Depression $100B 0.4B 19 million
HIV $ 40B 3.0B 44 million

We know that physical activity promotes improved mental health. Just 10 minutes of movement activates the endorphins in our brain (the ‘good mood’ chemicals). Regular exercise (5 days a week for 30-60 minutes) can, therefore, enhance your mood. Endorphins are your body’s natural antidepressant, so exercising can be a very effective way to prevent or reduce mild to moderate depression. Studies show that one hour of moderate exercise is equivalent to taking an antidepressant. In 2005, Dr. Joseph Mercola reported: “More and more researchers and physicians are coming to the conclusion that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants in reducing the symptoms of major depression. Research on the subject has demonstrated that:

  • 10 months of regular, moderate exercise outperformed a leading antidepressant (Zoloft) in easing symptoms in young adults
  • 30-minute aerobic workouts done three to five times a week cut depressive symptoms by 50 percent in young adults”

Exercise has also been shown to prevent, reduce, or delay diseases like cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, insomnia, arthritis, constipation, among others. Endorphins are also our body’s natural pain killers, so exercise can even relieve or reduce physical pain, like low back discomfort, headaches, and knee pain.

Keep in mind that 80% of our endorphins are stored in our stomach. Digestive health, therefore, plays a big part in emotional health. Disease such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), colitis, Crohn’s disease and constipation can potentially increase the likelihood of depressed mood and irritability if left untreated.

Proper nutrition is also essential for physical and mental health. In a webMD article on brain health, certain foods are shown to improve memory and reduce disease. “In one study, healthy adults who ate the most omega-3 fatty acids [fatty fish like salmon and sardines] had the most gray matter in three brain areas that regulate mood.” It was also noted that folic acid can reduce the risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

In another webMD article, a diet rich in whole grains and fruits can reduce the risk of heart disease and bad cholesterol.

Research shows that lean proteins such as chicken, turkey, and cottage cheese can repair and rebuild muscle tissue after exercising. Increased muscle tissue boosts the metabolism, burns more calories than body fat, and protects joints and bones, preventing diseases like osteoporosis. Eating a healthy breakfast sets the tone for the rest of the day. Skipping meals, especially breakfast, affects blood sugar levels and can affect mood, increasing the likelihood of irritability and lack of concentration. Skipping meals can also lead to weight gain as it gradually slows down the metabolism. Unhealthy nutrition habits on a regular basis can lead to low energy level, impaired concentration, poor quality sleep, and increased risk of disease.

In addition to proper nutrition, studies have also shown that simple changes in the way one thinks can make a significant impact on brain structure. Neuroplasticity (increased brain density, which makes for a healthier brain) is a product of regular doses of meditation and positive affirmations. “One of the most well-known studies to demonstrate this was led by Sara Lazar, from Harvard University, in 2000. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, has led experiments in cooperation with the Dalai Lama on effects of meditation on the brain. His results suggest that long-term, or short-term practice of meditation results in different levels of activity in brain regions associated with such qualities as attention, anxiety, depression, fear, anger, the ability of the body to heal itself, and so on. These functional changes may be caused by changes in the physical structure of the brain.”

Meditation has multiples benefits, including emotional resilience, happiness, and a positive outlook which impacts health, well-being and productivity. Regular meditation practice helps with focus and concentration and can also reduce medical costs since medical issues can be stabilized or reduced with meditative practice. Studies show meditation:

  • Normalizes blood pressure, heart rate and cholesterol levels
  • Reduces anxiety attacks by lowering the levels of blood lactate.
  • Decreases muscle tension (any pain due to tension) and headaches.
  • Builds self-confidence.
  • Increases serotonin production which influences mood and behavior. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression, obesity, insomnia and headaches.
  • Helps in chronic diseases like allergies, arthritis etc.
  • Reduces pre-menstrual symptoms.
  • Helps in post-operative healing.
  • Enhances the immune system. Research has revealed that meditation increases activity of ‘natural-killer cells’, which kill bacteria and cancer cells.
  • Reduces activity of viruses and emotional distress.
  • Increases energy level and mental clarity, therefore reducing mistakes and increasing productivity in the workplace.
  • Improves relationships
  • Promotes relaxation and positive intent

Our physical health plays a huge role in our brain health. Many physical ailments and diseases can also have a negative impact on memory function. Some of the most common health issues that can affect memory are:


  • diabetes
  • hypertension
  • cancer
  • thyroid imbalance
  • high cholesterol
  • vitamin B-12 deficiency
  • Keep in mind that this is only a partial list; there are many other physical conditions that negatively impact memory performance. Many physical conditions, left untreated or unresolved, can lead to serious mental impairment and disease.

In addition to exercise, nutrition, and meditation, sleep quality is often overlooked when it comes to overall physical and emotional health. Lack of sleep can affect mood, promoting irritability, lack of concentration, emotional eating, and higher risk of injury when exercising or just moving. Lack of sleep also disrupts the leptin and ghrelin hormones, also referred to as the ‘hunger hormones.’ When these hormones are dis-regulated, it is difficult to determine hungry or fullness, which can lead to overeating. In addition to disrupting the hormones, feeling tired increases cravings of high fat, high carbohydrate foods, also leading to weight gain.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health estimates that some 70 million Americans suffer from a chronic sleep disorder or intermittent sleep problem. Women experience the problems more often than men, and sleep difficulties increase with age.

Among other findings in the poll:

  • 46 percent said their sleep needs aren’t being met.
  • 35 percent said they sleep less than six hours a night.
  • 41 percent said they have driven while sleepy.
  • Almost on-third said that lack of sleep affected their work.
  • One-third said lack of sleep caused emotional problems, such as anxiety and depression.
  • 89 percent reported insomnia, 33 percent reported restless leg syndrome, and 14 percent reported sleep apnea

Quality sleep is imperative for physical and mental health. So, how can you improve your sleep ‘hygiene’? Here are some tips:

  • Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time, including your days off.
  • Give yourself at least 30-60 minutes to wind down before bedtime (this includes avoiding a lot of stimulation, like loud noises/music/TV shows, bright lights).
  • Keep your bedroom a work-free room, avoiding anything other than sleeping and sex in the bedroom (and don’t keep your computer, TV, vacuum cleaner or work desk in your bedroom).
  • Keep your bedroom dark, and a cool and comfortable temperature.
  • Have comfortable pillows and sheets.
  • Avoid any caffeine, sugar or alcohol in the afternoon and evening.
  • Avoid exercising 1-2 hours before bedtime if it affects your sleep, unless it is relaxing, like stretching or deep breathing.
  • Use relaxation tapes or white noise to help you fall asleep.
  • Avoid heavy eating before bedtime as it can lead to heartburn and indigestion and disrupt your sleep.
  • Avoid drinking a lot of fluids before bedtime as this can disrupt sleep if you have to use the bathroom.

While practitioners have the benefit of solid research based treatments that are very likely to increase health while reducing symptoms, the treatments are only effective if clients are compliant with that treatment. Compliance is a manifestation of good mental health, intrinsic motivation and being consistent with healthy behaviors.

The recent discovery of people making better decisions leading to mental health is so prevalent that even health insurance companies have invested money into staffing their call centers with mental health practitioners. The numbers are so clear that insurance company actuaries have discovered a cost effective way to reduce symptoms of illness is to emphasize good physical health.  For example, when an insurance company pays a practitioner a small amount to help members stop smoking, the company saves large amounts of money in health care costs later.  This same model is used by insurance companies with substance abuse treatment, depression, diabetes, bariatric surgery, and people in crisis, among others. The mind-body connection, once rarely addressed, is now the mainstream practice of Fortune 100 insurance companies.

As people become more aware of their choices regarding their health and they begin to make gradual changes along the way, the healthier they become. The mental health profession best addresses an integrative approach to health and wellness. For example, when people integrate their cognitive processes to replace irrational thoughts based in fears, a person with social phobia can replace self-medicating with alcohol with appropriate coping skills. Also, it is not uncommon to see clients lose the excess weight they have had all of their lives once they have addressed the psychological traumas from their youth, possibly sexual abuse or guilt. Taking a mind-body approach addresses the whole person, not just one part of the person, so improvements in mental and physical health and well-being are more sustaining.

Wellness is about lifestyle improvement, lifestyle change and maintaining that positive change. Setting goals along your journey can help keep you focused on what you want to achieve. By asking yourself, “How can I grow further?” and “How can I improve myself?” you are on your way to enhancing your wellness.  Here are some reasons to have a goal:

  • Goals give you a long term vision. When you have a long term vision, you can then set small ‘baby step’ goals along the way that are relevant to the long term vision. For example, if your long term vision is running a 5K next year, then you can make small goals along the way, like walking for 30 minutes 4 days a week, then maybe start jogging, or joining a running club. Gradual steps towards preparing for a 5K run make the long term vision more achievable.
  • Goals give you motivation to make changes. Having a specific goal can help you stay motivated to move toward your goal. When you have a visual of what you want to achieve, it becomes more tangible.
  • Goals keep you organized and focused. Having a goal to work toward can keep you set on action steps along the way. You have a clear vision of what you want to accomplish and you can pace yourself to take gradual steps along the way.

Napoleon Hill, author of “Think and Grow Rich”, interviewed over 500 American millionaires across 20 years, including Henry Ford, JP Morgan, Rockefeller, Alexander Graham Bell, and Thomas Edison.

He concluded that the main cause of failure is having no definitive chief aim in life – or failure to set clear and attainable goals- and plans to accomplish these goals.

When you are able to plan and organize your lifestyle, reaching your goal can become more manageable, and you can focus on what you need to do to accomplish your goal with less resistance and stress.

Goals should be something that you want for yourself. Make sure that your goal is yours and not want someone else wants you to do. Otherwise, you may lose your motivation and interest in the goal and give up. When you are passionate about your goal, you are much more likely to achieve it.

Setting SMART goals:

  • Specific. Having a specific goal helps keep you focused and gives you a good visual and clarity on what your goal is, instead of a goal that is vague. For example, instead of saying “I want to eat healthier”, a specific goal can be “I will eat one fruit and one vegetable every day.”
  • Measurable and Meaningful. Goals need to be measurable so you can create realistic and achievable ones. You can then adjust as you need to along the way. Your goals should be meaningful to your long term vision, and what you want to accomplish for yourself.
  • Achievable and Action-oriented. For change to occur, you need to have a plan of action. Make sure you take baby steps along the way so the goals are achievable.
  • Realistic and Relevant. Keeping goals realistic can prevent you from feeling overwhelmed and discouraged. For instance, if you are not exercising at all, then making a goal to exercise every day for an hour can be unrealistic. Instead, you may want to start off with exercising 15 minutes 3 days a week and gradually work up to what you want to do. Goals should be relevant to your long term vision.
  • Time bound. To make sure that you are giving yourself enough time to achieve a goal, it is important to have your goal time bound. It also helps prevent you from procrastinating on working toward your goal.

More tips to make your goals successful:

Write down your goal. Writing down your goal gives you a good visual and reminder. Keep your goal close by, like on the refrigerator, on your desk or computer as a reminder of what you want to accomplish.

Share your goal with others. Telling others about your goal not only helps with support, motivation and accountability, but you are also three times more likely to achieve the goal.

Keep your goal realistic and challenging. In order to grow and improve, your goal needs to be challenging, just enough to push yourself slightly beyond your comfort zone. It also needs to be realistic for you, so that you can achieve the goal.

Enjoy the journey. Setting goals for yourself can help you stay focused and motivated to move forward, and gives you a vision of what you want to achieve. Enjoy your journey to wellness and be gentle with yourself when you have a setback. Use the setback as an opportunity for growth and learning and continue moving forward with what you can do.

There continues to be more research showing the connection between physical and mental health. Taking gradual steps to enhance your health will lead you down the path of improved health. It is a combination of consistent healthy choices, like regular exercising, restful sleep, nutrition, relaxation techniques like meditation, and setting realistic goals for yourself that create an overall healthy lifestyle.


Fazarko, D, et al. The Impact of an Innovative Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program on the Health and Well-Being of Nurses Employed in the Corporate Setting. J Workplace Behav Health. 2013 Apr;28(2): 107-133.

Goulding, C. (2012). Healthy Weight: It’s a Family Affair. Denver, CO. Outskirts Press.

Lazar, S.; Kerr, C.; Wasserman, R.; Gray, J.; Greve, D.; Treadway, Michael T.; McGarvey, Metta; Quinn, Brian T. et al. (28 November 2005). “Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness”. NeuroReport 16 (17): 1893–97.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine,

Wareham N, Bingham S, Welch A, Luben R, et al. (2008) Combined impact of health behaviours and mortality in men and women: the EPIC-Norfolk Prospective Population study. PLoS Med 5(1): e12.