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How Your Physical Health Impacts Your Mental Health

Anyone who has struggled with mental health can tell you that mental health issues often take a toll on your physical health. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders can contribute to fatigue, excessive weight gain/loss, and more—not to mention taking away motivation to exercise, eat well, or care for your body in other ways. But the truly interesting thing is that this relationship works both ways: mental health impacts physical health, and physical health impacts mental health as well. 

The science behind mental health

Mental health is a complex problem that looks different for everyone. But there are some things about mental health (and mental illness) that are generally considered true. Among them is the idea that brain chemistry has a very real impact on your mental state.

When the balance of certain chemicals in the brain is “off,” this can lead to certain issues. Think of it this way: if chemicals in the brain control how your body reacts to certain stimuli, then an imbalance of those chemicals could cause your body to react to those stimuli in unusual or unhealthy ways. 

Take a look at this chart for examples of the chemicals that have an impact on your mental health, including the symptoms they can cause:

ChemicalToo much causes…Too little causes…
AdrenalineStress, difficulty concentrating, dizziness, fatigue, anxiety(This is rare)
DopamineAttention disorders, mood swings, psychosisAddictive behaviors, compulsions, depression
NorepinephrineAnxiety, hyperactivityLack of energy, lack of focus
SerotoninAnxiety, depression, obsessive actions or thoughtsHigh stress, hormonal fluctuations

Because there is, to some extent, a biological aspect to mental health, it makes sense that changing your physical health would have an impact on your mental health. 

There are a few big ways that your physical health impacts your mental health. Let’s take a closer look at them and go over some ways to improve in those areas. 

Exercise and mental health

One of the most commonly drawn correlations between physical and mental health is that of exercise. Exercise has long been recognized as beneficial to your mental health. 

In fact, one study (referenced in this article) found that running for just 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by as much as 26%. And in some cases, exercise is just as effective as antidepressants for treating or managing depression. 

The reason this works is basically that physical movement (specifically exercising regularly over time) increases brain activity, causing nerve cells to grow and make new connections. This increased function makes you feel better.  

Everyone knows they should exercise more, for both their physical and mental/emotional wellbeing. But if that’s the case, why do so many people (myself included) still struggle with it?

Tips for improving your exercise habits

I think a big part of it is that we have an idea of what exercise “should” be, and quite frankly, it sounds hard. But the truth is, it doesn’t have to be. Here are some tips that might help you find an exercise routine that works for you.

  • Find an activity you love. If you hate running (raises hand), don’t force yourself to run every day just because you know it’s a good workout. Find an activity or two that you enjoy doing, even if it’s just walking.
  • Schedule time for it. If you tell yourself that you’ll squeeze it in, you probably won’t. Set aside time for it. If it’s the same time every day, that’s even better!
  • Start small. Got five minutes? Great! Exercise for five minutes. Don’t push yourself so far that exercise becomes a chore or something you dread. You’re trying to make it a habit; make it easy for you to stick to your commitments.
  • Pair it with something else. The strategy of pairing is a great way to build a new habit, because it ties something you want to do with something you already do regularly. For example, you could do pushups right before you get in the shower or squats while you brush your teeth. You could allow yourself to listen to your podcast or audiobook only while you’re walking or running. 

The bottom line is: exercise doesn’t have to look like anything, and it doesn’t have to be a killer workout every time. Some movement is better than none, so for now, just get into the habit of moving your body. It will help you feel better physically and mentally.  

Sleep and mental health

Sleep is another connection between your mental health and your physical health. Some of the effects of poor sleep include:

  • Trouble concentrating
  • Memory issues
  • Mood changes
  • Weight gain
  • Low sex drive
  • Increased blood pressure/risk of heart disease
  • Poor balance and coordination
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue

Sleep also helps you process emotions, which is perhaps one of the reasons that poor sleep is associated with depression, anxiety, and other mental or emotional health issues.  

Tips for improving your sleep

Getting better sleep could play a huge role in helping you be better equipped to handle mental health struggles. Here are some tips to help you get better sleep more regularly:

  • Design an ideal sleep environment.
  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Avoid caffeine after 4 pm.
  • Avoid screens for at least an hour before bed.
  • Take supplements (such as melatonin) to help you sleep.

When your body is well rested, both your body and your mind can function better. It’s just another way your physical health impacts your mental health.

Gut health and mental health

This is a connection that has become more well-known in recent years. More and more research is revealing that there is a very real link between your gut health and your mental health. The “gut-brain axis” refers to the biochemical signals sent between the gut (gastrointestinal tract) and the brain.

Current estimates suggest that as much as 90% of your body’s serotonin (one of those important, mood-impacting hormones mentioned above) is produced in your gut, along with as much as 75% of your body’s immune cells. Those numbers alone suggest that gut health can have a significant impact on mental health.

Your gut is home to billions of bacteria that make up your gut microbiome. Some of these bacteria are beneficial to your health. Others, not so much. It’s important to do what you can to maintain a healthy balance between the good and the bad bacteria.

Tips for improving your gut health

The focus on gut health is relatively new in many health circles, so it can seem like a mystery to those of us who’ve never given our guts much thought before. But some of the things you can do to improve your gut health include:

  • Include probiotics in your diet. Probiotics are essentially beneficial bacteria that your gut needs. These could come from supplements, or from foods such as kimchi, kombucha, yogurt (with live, active cultures), sauerkraut, kefir, sourdough bread, and even pickles.
  • Include prebiotics in your diet. Prebiotics are basically food for probiotics; they allow good bacteria in your gut to thrive. Again, you can get these from supplements, or from foods like bananas, asparagus, onions, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, and dandelion greens.
  • Manage stress. Stress can have an impact on your gut bacteria, so do what you can to keep stress in check.
  • Get good sleep. 
  • Exercise.
  • Eat less sugar.

If you’re really interested in getting into gut health, check out Thryve. They’ll send you a test kit that will test your microbiome so they can then make personalized gut health suggestions based on your results.

Why the connection between physical and mental health is good news

The fact that your physical health impacts your mental health (and vice versa) is actually something you can benefit from. Why?

Because working on either one will benefit the other. You can start where you are, play to your strengths, and get double the benefit. Is it easier for you to work on your physical health or your mental health? Make a plan that works for you and you’ll reap the rewards in more ways than one.

Yes, your physical health impacts your mental health, but making even a few small changes can help you establish healthy habits that will benefit both your body and your mind. Start today—there’s no time like the present to start working toward a happier, healthier version of you. 

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