The mind-body connection. Chances are high you’ve heard about this powerful link in recent science and health news (or maybe it was in your yoga class? Everyone is talking about it!) For skeptics of natural and alternative health, the term “mind-body connection” might sound woo-woo, but all judgement aside, the research is strong and fascinating.
We’re learning more and more that many health problems and disease processes don’t just “happen” to us out of the blue, but are directly correlated with the untreated and ignored long term effects of stress, lack of sleep, and mental health imbalance.
Rather than allow it to make us feel guilty, let’s use knowledge as a form of empowerment. Obviously we can’t control all disease, but the mind does have more power over your health than you may realize. So what can you do about it? Read on to learn more about the science, some examples of illnesses with a mind-body connection, and ways your body may actually be asking you to tune in.
photo by Kimberly Genevieve
What is the mind-body connection, scientifically speaking?
For years, doctors and scientists looked at the mind-body connection as either
- a. completely disconnected or
- b. somewhat of a domino effect of poor mental health.
For example, “when a woman is stressed, she binge eats for comfort… binge eating includes ice cream and cookies which raise her blood sugar… so, she develops diabetes.” Patterns like this lead doctors to believe depression = higher likelihood of diabetes.
However, new research is so much more fascinating than cause and effect. Researchers have found neurological pathways within our body that actually connect our muscles, endocrine system, immune system, heart, gut and spinal cord with parts of the brain that process and “feel” emotion. That’s right, our body parts are telling our mind how to feel and vice versa. The most common example is when you’re nervous and you feel “butterflies” in your stomach, this correlation between your emotions and your gut has to do with neurological pathways along the “brain-gut axis.”
It’s all much more connected than you (and years of theory behind Western medicine) ever believed. To make sense of it you have to un-train yourself from the common belief that your mind and body are two separate entities. Dig this topic? Check out this article as published by the National Institute of Health.
photo by Sara Prince
Common Examples of Mind-Body Connected Illness
Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Anxiety & Depression
The Lowdown: People who deal with anxiety and depression are actually acutely more sensitive to GI pain and discomfort than the average person. This causes the gut nerves to become over-sensitive, over-active and potentially leads to IBS. The colon is also controlled by the nervous system which can spasm or slow down when one is nervous or depressed. Anxiety, sadness, stress, and depression can all play a piece in bowel health for those with IBS. They even prescribe antidepressants as treatment for those with IBS with great response as the two are so intertwined.
Signs You May Be Ignoring IBS: You Have…
- Pain or cramping with bowel movements
- You have cramping and diarrhea suddenly after meals
- You have consistent diarrhea or constipation more often than normal bowel movements
- Your bowel habits typically alter between alternate between constipation and diarrhea
- You notice that stress and anxiety cause your bowel habits to change
- You suffer from gas and bloating regularly
- You are fatigued or tired more often than not
How do I tune in?
If you have multiple or re-occurring episodes of the above symptoms, you should go to a doctor for a formal diagnosis. Try to get in with a gastroenterologist (a specialist who works with the gut), additionally seeing a functional medicine doctor could be a great place to start too, depending on how holistic you’d like to go. Knowing what kinds of food trigger attacks (commonly: alcohol, fatty, greasy or fried foods, too much roughage or very acidic foods can be culprits) is also really important to get IBS under control. Try keeping a food diary and figuring out what is causing your symptoms. Lastly, but most importantly, decreasing stress and anxiety as much as possible is hugely helpful. Meditation, yoga and mindfulness practices are a great place to start. I really like the app Headspace which guides you through easy meditations. Happy bowel health to you all.
photo by Belathée
Migraines and Anxiety & Depression
The Lowdown: Women are more likely to deal with migraines than men and more than 2 in 5 people who suffer from migraines also suffer from anxiety. The connection is linked with high levels of the stress hormone adrenaline which is a trigger for anxiety and depression. When adrenaline, which naturally acts as a pain blocker, drops off suddenly for one reason or another, a migraine may ensue. Depression is thought to trigger migraines in a different way for the one third of the population who have been diagnosed with depression and subsequently migraines. Interestingly, some medications prescribed for migraine are also prescribed for depression. Some experts contribute this to elevated levels of inflammation that have been studied in both diseases, disturbances in sleep/wake patterns that can be common in bipolar disorder or decreased blood flow to the brain.
Signs You May be Ignoring Migraines: You Have…
- Headache that starts as a dull ache and turns into pounding or throbbing
- You have light, sound or smell sensitivity
- You get an “aura” or changes in vision, sensation or perception that lets you know a headache is coming
- Headaches are accompanied by nausea, vomiting, upset stomach or belly pain
- Loss of appetite with headaches
- Fatigue, dizziness or looking very pale when you get a headache
- Feeling flushed or chilled when a headache comes on
How do I tune in?
If you’ve never been formally diagnosed with migraines but suffer from the above issues, you should see a neurologist ASAP. It’s important to determine what the cause of the migraines are and you should be screened, including potentially having an MRI to look at your brain. It may also be important to keep a headache, activity and food calendar if you think something you may be eating, doing or drinking is triggering your migraines. Lastly but maybe most importantly: sleep maintenance and schedules are super important for people with migraine brains. Pick a bedtime and wake up time and stick to your schedule as much as possible. Routine, good sleep and a steady healthy lifestyle can be migraine altering. If you’re feeling extremely stressed, anxious or depressed, yoga and meditation (again!) are always helpful for decreasing stress hormones that can lead to headaches.
photo by Teal Thomsen
Heart Disease and Panic Disorder or Depression
The Lowdown: The link between panic disorder & depression with heart disease is astounding. Those who suffer from depression and active panic disorder have a 30% and 47% increased risk for heart attack, respectively. You can actually worry yourself sick…. eep! The good news is we have more support for mental health now than ever before so there are resources. Don’t panic! (Get it?) What’s actually happening? Whether you’re panicking or extremely depressed, your brain dumps the hormones cortisol and adrenaline in large doses into your blood-stream. This is a pretty toxic combo for your heart, and repeated offenses can cause arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms) over time. Additionally, depression has been linked to having “stickier platelets.” These are the red blood cells that are responsible for clotting. If they are “too sticky,” you have a higher risk for clots which can also cause heart attacks by decreasing blood flow to the heart.
Signs you May Need to Pay Attention to Your Heart: You Have…
- Your blood pressure is > 130 / 80 (you can do a self check at most drugstores)
- You have chest pain, pressure, tightness or discomfort randomly or after physical exertion
- You have unexplained shortness or breath
- You have pain, numbness, weakness or coldness in your legs or arms and you know there are no blood vessel issues there
- You feel your heart beating very fast in your chest or neck suddenly without warning or when you’re stressed
- You’ve fainted from an irregular heart beat before
- You’ve felt your heart beating concerningly slow before
- You have unexplained swelling in your legs
- You have a dry persistent cough that won’t go away
How do I tune in?
This connection should make your ears perk up if you have a history of panic or depression and you haven’t been to a family practice or primary care doctor lately. Time to make an appointment! Be sure you are diligently and regularly being screened for your weight, healthy blood pressures, and having your cholesterol checked to catch any heart issues early.
If you’ve been diagnosed with panic disorder or depression, working on ways to decrease stress and anxiety is clearly important – you want to decrease the toxic hormone dump as much as possible. There’s an awesome breath work app that I’m obsessed with right now called State. It guides you through breath work if you’re feeling panicked and need a quick way to calm down. Additionally, seeing a therapist if you’re not already in therapy, considering medications to treat panic or depression and spending more time with family, friends or pets who make you happy are all researched and effective ways to help treat mental health disorders. Don’t know if you have time for therapy? This online therapy option is convenient and easy.
Wondering if you have depression but aren’t sure? There is a screening tool here that you can access online: tally up your score and then use the scoring tool on the next page to see if you might need more help. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help if you’re depressed, you are not alone and you can find many resources and people who care about you to get you on the path to feeling better. Here’s one place to start.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice. The views expressed are the views of the author, so please talk to your doctor before making any medical decisions.