What Is The Mind-Body Connection? How To Harness This Link For Ultimate Wellbeing
For many years, people have believed that mental health was completely separate from physical health, but now researchers are starting to see just how connected the mind and body really are. In fact, I see just how much influence a person’s emotions have on their physical health and vice versa on a daily basis in my telehealth functional medicine clinic. So without further ado, let’s take a look at the mind and body connection and what this means for our health as a whole.
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What is the mind-body connection and why is it important?
The mind-body connection is a topic that is being increasingly talked about in the wellness world. And for good reason. This feedback loop between your thoughts and feelings and your body is something that researchers are beginning to validate after decades of anecdotal experience from people all over the world.
While it might sound a little “far-out” for some, the mind-body connection is ultimately the idea that your thoughts and feelings can control certain aspects of your physiology and that your physiology can also play a role in the state of your mental health.
Recognizing the mind-body connection is so important because it gives us insight into mental health problems, why they occur, and helps us determine the best course of action for healing. Instead of mental health being stigmatized, this connection helps prove the physiological changes that can contribute to problems like depression, anxiety, addiction, and more in order to facilitate healing.
What are some examples of the mind-body connection?
At its core, the mind-body connection is rooted in science. Stress and how it affects your physical health is a prime example of the mind-body connection at work. Here are just a few ways that chronic, ongoing stress plays a role in how you feel physically:
1. Digestive distress
The gut is often called the second brain because of the direct connection between these two systems. For example, the gut contains 95% of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin. (1) A study published in the Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology suggests that stress is linked to gastrointestinal conditions like IBS, GERD, and ulcers, demonstrating another aspect of this connection. (2)
2. Thyroid problems
The thyroid gland is particularly sensitive to stress in multiple ways. For example, some studies suggest (3) that stress decreases your conversion from T4 (inactive) to T3 (active) leading to low T3 syndrome, that stress can trigger autoimmune thyroid problems (Hashimoto’s and Graves’ disease), and that stress can also cause or worsen thyroid resistance. (4)
When gaining weight keeps getting easier but losing it keeps getting harder, the culprit may be stress. A study published in Biological Psychiatry found that chronic stress alone can slow your metabolism and increase cravings enough to make you gain 11 pounds every year! (5) Plus, when you’re stressed, your body holds on to fat as an emergency resource, which can make weight loss feel nearly impossible.
An interesting study, published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, looked at the relationship between mental stress, our brains, and inflammation. (6) After requiring participants to complete stressful tasks like math and public speaking, they found that levels of the pro-inflammatory protein interleukin-6 (IL-6), shot through the roof.
So what’s the exact science behind this influence? When you are stressed it triggers a chain reaction in your brain as your hypothalamus sends signals to your adrenal glands to release cortisol (your body’s stress hormone) and adrenaline. While this is a completely normal and healthy process, we get into trouble when we are under constant stress, as we are not meant to be stressed for extended periods of time.
In fact, studies have found that chronic stress can actually cause long-term changes in the structure and function of the brain that can contribute to mental health issues. Other research has shown an association between chronic stress and increased risk of insomnia, (7) and even dementia. (8)
So with just this one example of stress to look at, the mind-body connection seems pretty undeniable. And this doesn’t even take into account things like past trauma, isolation, abuse, and other emotional feelings that have been shown to play a role in physical health.
You can learn more about how negative emotions affect your health such as raising your risk for diabetes, heart disease, skin problems, and more in my article here.
How can I improve my mind-body connection?
Even though our knowledge of the mind-body connection is evolving, we can start to take what we do know about this connection to start improving our overall well-being. Here are a few tools that you can start incorporating into your daily life to strengthen your mind-body connection and facilitate healing.
1. Practice mindfulness
One of the biggest ways to improve your mind-body connection? Reduce stress. Establishing a regular mindfulness practice like journaling, prayer, or meditation can help you refocus on yourself and the present moment and lower overall stress levels.
2. Take time for yourself
With so much going on in our daily lives, making time for self-care is often the last on our to-do list. However, spending time alone, enjoying your own company away from other people is an often overlooked way to enhance your mind-body connection. Not only is this time a way to decompress and destress, it can give you an opportunity to clear your head and work through any negative emotions or daily traumas that could be contributing to poor health.
3. Assess your diet
Looking at the physical end of the mind-body connection, the food you eat plays a major role in how you feel. Not only can foods like sugar, (9) alcohol, (10) fat-free foods, and nutrient deficiencies play a role in depression and anxiety; eating foods like turkey, (11) turmeric, (12) and magnesium-rich dark leafy greens (13) can help alleviate depression and anxiety symptoms by correcting deficiencies and supporting healthy brain function.
4. Cognitive behavior therapy
You might be reading this and think that you are good when it comes to stress and mental health. But here’s the truth: the mind often forgets things that the body remembers. This is especially true when it comes to past trauma, hurt, or grief. Many of us spend our days distracted by daily tasks, feeling pretty good and moving through life without pausing long enough to feel our feelings or really connect with our deeper emotions.
So even if you aren’t dealing with daily stress right now, seeing a qualified therapist can help you unpack any feelings or experiences that are below the surface so that you can process them and feel more at ease.
Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) was originally developed to treat depression and is still considered one of the most effective types of therapy for depression. (14) The whole idea is to improve negative emotions by changing destructive thoughts and behaviors through developing personal coping strategies for each person. In many cases, it can actually be just as effective as medication!
5. Incorporate breathwork
Under stressful conditions, breathing gets shallower, which only feeds anxiety. Focused breathwork can be a great tool to bring you back to the present moment whenever you feel stress rising up and has been shown to lower cortisol levels. Plus, it requires zero tools and can be done anywhere!
6. Try adaptogenic herbs
Adaptogens are a family of plants and herbs that are considered generally safe for everyone and play a role in helping your body reduce the effects of stress and have a balancing effect on cortisol. My favorite herbs to help lower stress include ashwagandha and reishi. You can find adaptogens in powdered form to add to your daily smoothie, tea, or coffee.
While we are continuously learning about the mechanisms by which your mental wellbeing affects your physical health and vice versa, the mind-body connection can’t be denied. In order to start healing mentally, emotionally, and physically, we need to start addressing health from a whole-person perspective.
Functional medicine puts great emphasis on this and understands that healing isn’t limited to the physical aspects alone. Therefore, in my telehealth functional medicine clinic we aim to find and treat the root cause behind a person’s health problems by bringing in various forms of health care including conventional treatments and alternative wellness therapies.
If you are ready to get to the root cause of why you are feeling the way that you are, check out our consultation to see if functional medicine is the right course in your journey to a better health and a stronger mind-body connection.
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- Camilleri, Michael. “Serotonin in the gastrointestinal tract.” Current opinion in endocrinology, diabetes, and obesity vol. 16,1 (2009): 53-9. doi:10.1097/med.0b013e32831e9c8e
- Konturek, Peter C et al. “Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options.” Journal of physiology and pharmacology : an official journal of the Polish Physiological Society vol. 62,6 (2011): 591-9.
- Ongphiphadhanakul, B et al. “Tumor necrosis factor-alpha decreases thyrotropin-induced 5'-deiodinase activity in FRTL-5 thyroid cells.” European journal of endocrinology vol. 130,5 (1994): 502-7. doi:10.1530/eje.0.1300502
- Kimura, Hiroaki, and Patrizio Caturegli. “Chemokine orchestration of autoimmune thyroiditis.” Thyroid : official journal of the American Thyroid Association vol. 17,10 (2007): 1005-11. doi:10.1089/thy.2007.0267
- Sinha, Rajita, and Ania M Jastreboff. “Stress as a common risk factor for obesity and addiction.” Biological psychiatry vol. 73,9 (2013): 827-35. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.01.032
- Breines, Juliana G et al. “Self-compassion as a predictor of interleukin-6 response to acute psychosocial stress.” Brain, behavior, and immunity vol. 37 (2014): 109-14. doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2013.11.006
- American Academy of Sleep Medicine. "How you cope with stress may increase your risk for insomnia." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 July 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/07/140703103001.htm>.
- Wang, Hui-Xin et al. “Psychosocial stress at work is associated with increased dementia risk in late life.” Alzheimer's & dementia : the journal of the Alzheimer's Association vol. 8,2 (2012): 114-20. doi:10.1016/j.jalz.2011.03.001
- Aucoin, Monique, and Sukriti Bhardwaj. “Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Hypoglycemia Symptoms Improved with Diet Modification.” Case reports in psychiatry vol. 2016 (2016): 7165425. doi:10.1155/2016/7165425
- Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Substance Abuse Treatment for Persons With Co-Occurring Disorders. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2005. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 42.) 9 Substance-Induced Disorders. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64178/
- Hudson, Craig et al. “Protein-source tryptophan as an efficacious treatment for social anxiety disorder: a pilot study.” Canadian journal of physiology and pharmacology vol. 85,9 (2007): 928-32. doi:10.1139/Y07-082
- Sanmukhani, Jayesh et al. “Efficacy and safety of curcumin in major depressive disorder: a randomized controlled trial.” Phytotherapy research : PTR vol. 28,4 (2014): 579-85. doi:10.1002/ptr.5025
- Sartori, S B et al. “Magnesium deficiency induces anxiety and HPA axis dysregulation: modulation by therapeutic drug treatment.” Neuropharmacology vol. 62,1 (2012): 304-12. doi:10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.07.027
- Driessen, Ellen, and Steven D Hollon. “Cognitive behavioral therapy for mood disorders: efficacy, moderators and mediators.” The Psychiatric clinics of North America vol. 33,3 (2010): 537-55. doi:10.1016/j.psc.2010.04.005
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.