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The mind-body link: How does physical health affect mental health? 

Jun 21, 202412 minute read

Holistic health includes more than what you see on the surface. Mental health and physical health are deeply intertwined. The well-being of one can significantly impact the other.

Many people know the mood-boosting power of exercise, but the effects of physical health go beyond hitting the gym.

“Our mental health can absolutely affect our physical health,”  says April Kilduff, Licensed Therapist and Clinical Trainer at NOCD.

“When people are struggling with their mental health, they may not be sleeping well, they may not be eating well, they’re probably not going to the gym and getting exercise. So, to me, they can’t be separated.” 

It’s important to give attention to the parts of life that make you feel healthy, happy, and whole. Understanding how physical health affects mental health can help move you toward that reality—and even relieve symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, OCD, and beyond.   

The science behind physical and mental health

Why does physical health affect mental health? Because humans are not just bodies or minds in isolation. The body is a holistic entity where each part influences the whole.

“There’s a general understanding that physical health is important. There’s no stigma to that, whereas mental health is seen as this thing that only affects a few people. Which is kind of silly, because everybody has mental health just like they have physical health,” Kilduff remarks.

The relationship between mental health and physical health, often referred to as the mind-body connection, is not just a philosophical idea. It’s backed by a wealth of scientific evidence.1

Mental health (emotional resilience and social well-being) shapes our ability to navigate life’s twists and turns. Physical health, including everything from fitness to nutrition, is the foundation of our bodily wellness.

5 physical factors that influence mental health

When you think of mental health and physical health, you may consider exercise to be the primary influencer of well-being. While it is valuable in overall health and wellness, the mind-body connection is more complex.

If you’re seeking relief from conditions like stress, depression, OCD, anxiety, and beyond, it’s important to analyze all the physical factors that affect mental well-being.

Nutrition and mental health

A balanced diet fuels the body and the mind and is necessary for a properly functioning brain. 

For example, while many fad diets villainize carbohydrates, they play an important role in mental and physical health. Carbs found in foods like grains, beans, and fruit support the steady release of serotonin,5 a neurotransmitter known for its mood-stabilizing effects.

On the other hand, poor nutrition can also contribute to mental health challenges. Vitamin B12, for example, is often overlooked but plays a crucial role in maintaining both physical and mental well-being. Commonly found in meat and dairy products, a lack of B123 can cause low concentration, insomnia, agitation, apathy, and even hallucinations or delusions. 

Studies have also linked diets high in processed foods and sugars to an increased risk of depression and anxiety.4 All of this paints a clear picture of how nutrition and supplements can impact OCD, depression, anxiety, and more. 

Exercise and mental health

Physical exercise is a powerful contributor to mental well-being. Studies consistently show a positive correlation between regular physical activity and improved mental health.6 

As a high-level explanation, this occurs when you exercise, and your body triggers the release of hormones like endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine. These are commonly known as “feel-good” or “happy” hormones because they can naturally relieve pain or improve your mood. 

Guidelines developed from multiple studies suggest incorporating exercise into mental health treatments like therapy and medication.7 However, the overall population has been slow to adopt exercise as a mental health practice. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, too much exercise can also be harmful for your overall well-being. Kilduff stresses the importance of knowing when exercise habits turn into an unhealthy extreme or an OCD compulsion

“You might see people working out for two or three hours instead of 30 to 60 minutes,” she says. “For some people it’s this idea of [obtaining] perfection. For other people it might be, ‘I need to do this to stay healthy, because I’m terrified of getting sick.’ With OCD, the reasons are often idiosyncratic, but you’ll see a lot of similar behaviors.”

Smoking and mental health

There is an intricate relationship between mental health and tobacco use. 

A 2019 study found that adults with mental health concerns were 1.8 times more likely to smoke than those without. That includes 70-85% of individuals with schizophrenia and 50-70% of those with bipolar disorder.

Scientists believe these numbers are caused by the temporary relief nicotine has on mental health symptoms. However, the same studies found quitting smoking is connected to better overall mental health. 

Smokers can reduce feelings of depression, anxiety, and stress by kicking the habit. Although it seems like a quick fix for some mental health issues, quitting can bring significant long-term benefits for mental health and physical health.

Chronic conditions and mental health 

Managing diagnoses like cancer, diabetes, or heart disease comes with many complex emotions and challenges. They can introduce difficult-to-navigate stressors, like treatment, symptom management, and medical bills.

As a result, people living with chronic health conditions experience a higher risk of developing mental health challenges.9 This risk increases even more for those with multiple chronic conditions.10 

“Some physical health conditions can directly relate to mental health,” says Kilduff. “It’s really just taking into consideration those conditions when you’re working with someone and developing an understanding of them, being able to be flexible.” 

By bridging the gap between mental health and physical health, providers and patients can address the connection between chronic conditions and emotional well-being.

Sleep and mental health

It’s no secret that sleep is tied to mental health. But to what extent? 

“When people lack sleep, it’s much more difficult to deal with emotions, self-regulate, and just get things done and be productive,” says Kilduff. 

Every time you sleep, you’re allowing time for your brain to strengthen the connections between brain cells and perform essential tasks. This helps you improve problem-solving, decision-making, and short- and long-term memory functions.11 

Without the proper amount of sleep, about 7-9 hours each night, the brain cannot perform these tasks. This can lead to depression, lower levels of motivation, and even thoughts of suicide.12 

Mental health conditions can also impact your sleep, making it difficult to avoid the cycle of poor mental health and sleep deprivation. But even small changes each day, like avoiding technology an hour before bed, can lead to improvements toward better rest. 

If you struggle with sleep, Kilduff offers a few more sleep hygiene best practices. 

“If you have trouble falling asleep, get up out of bed and do something boring. Do not get a screen. Go do the dishes, read a book, and wait until you’re tired again, and then try to fall back asleep. Stop clock-checking. Not knowing the time can be really helpful.”

How to care for your mental and physical health  

Health is complex and ever-changing. Recognizing the strength it takes to confront these struggles and seek support is crucial.

Beyond traditional treatments, like therapy and medication, you can make a few healthy lifestyle changes to support your overall well-being. The tips below are neither a cure-all nor a replacement for necessary therapies or medications, but they can help. 

Increase your heart rate with aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise has emerged as a powerful ally in promoting mental health. It can be particularly beneficial for individuals with complex mental health conditions like OCD. 

Aerobic activities are continuous movements that elevate your heart rate and breathing. Jogging, swimming, and rowing are three common examples of aerobic exercises.

In addition to releasing “happy” hormones for your mental well-being, these activities can improve other areas of your health as well. A 2019 study highlighted the link between regular aerobic exercise and chronic conditions, sleep quality, and other factors.13 

Tip: If you want to add more movement to your routine, consider activities you enjoy—rather than forcing ones you hate. This makes it easier to stay consistent and maintain a healthy lifestyle. For example, if you don’t enjoy jogging, consider something like dancing or rollerblading. 

Try yoga, meditation, or mindfulness  

Yoga, a holistic practice that originated in India, has evolved over thousands of years. 

While the impact of yoga on mental health is well-documented in Eastern traditions, Western science only recently examined the connection. 

Yoga’s emphasis on mindfulness, breath control, and gentle physical postures can be particularly helpful for individuals with a wide range of mental health conditions. 

A yoga practice encourages a heightened awareness of the present moment, offering a valuable tool for those with anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, or OCD.15 

Tip: To incorporate yoga or meditation into your weekly routine, start slow with 5-minute sessions. This makes it easier to get started as you explore what works best for your mind and body.

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Make sure you’re getting proper nutrition 

It’s important to maintain stable blood sugar levels through a well-balanced diet. This includes avoiding processed foods and opting for fruits, whole grains, legumes, lean proteins, and vegetables when you can. 

“About 20% of the nutrients we take in go directly to supporting our brain and brain functions.17 So when you’re not getting the right nutrients, it’s harder to regulate, harder to think clearly,” says Kilduff.

Adopting a nutrient-dense diet and staying hydrated can enhance mental health and physical health. That doesn’t mean you need to eat “perfectly” all the time. Enjoying the occasional snack is also healthy—it’s all about balance. 

Tip: If you’re looking for ways to improve your nutrition, consider planning your meals and snacks so you’re prepared when hunger strikes. Proper hydration also supports mental and physical health, so try carrying a water bottle throughout the day.   

Consistently get enough sleep 

If you’re grappling with a mental health condition, establishing healthy sleep habits can feel transformative. Prioritizing sleep hygiene is also known as an effective ADHD or OCD coping strategy.

Sleep is essential for both physical and mental health. It plays several roles in the body, like reducing the risk of chronic conditions, enhancing memory functions, and regulating feelings of depression.12 

If you can’t get 7-9 hours of sleep each night, consider reaching out to a professional who specializes in sleep disorders for support. 

Tip: To help you fall asleep, consider incorporating activities like reading, gentle stretching, or mindfulness right before bed. Aerobic exercise can also help improve sleep quality over time. 

When to seek professional guidance

So, how does physical health affect mental health? Physical well-being supports mood regulation, enhances your focus, reduces depression, and more.

And while all of this is true, knowing when to seek professional advice is also crucial to managing your mental health. 

Kilduff emphasizes that things don’t have to be at their worst for you to seek help. Professional guidance can be preventative, but if your mental health is negatively impacting your ability to live life it’s time to reach out. 

“I see people say, ‘It’s not that bad yet.’ But you don’t have to wait until it gets really bad,” Kilduff says. “I hope one day that as a culture we can take mental health as seriously as we take our physical health. That would be the ideal.”

Lifestyle changes and self-help strategies can be beneficial, but the expertise of mental health professionals is indispensable. This is especially true if you’re struggling with a more complex condition like OCD, which requires specific treatment for long-term relief. 

By caring for both mental health and physical health, you create a positive cycle that enhances all areas of life. 

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Mental and physical health FAQ

It’s all connected. Get quick answers about how physical health affects mental health. 

What is the mind-body connection? 

The mind-body connection refers to the relationship between mental and physical health. It acknowledges how thoughts, emotions, and attitudes can impact bodily functions and vice versa.1

How does exercise improve mental health?  

Exercise improves mental health by promoting the release of “feel-good” hormones, the body’s natural mood enhancers. This boost contributes to reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression, enhanced mood, and improved overall psychological well-being.1

What is the connection between nutrition and mental health?  

A balanced diet rich in essential nutrients helps your brain function properly and can help you regulate your emotions.5 Poor nutrition, like a lack of nutrients or an excess of processed foods, can lead to an increased risk of mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety.4

Can chronic conditions affect mental health? 

Yes, chronic conditions can significantly affect mental health. Dealing with long-term health challenges often leads to increased stress, emotional strain, and a higher risk of developing mental health disorders.9

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Sources 

  1. NCBI (2023, January) “Role of Physical Activity on Mental Health and Well-Being: A Review.” (Accessed March 2024)
  2. Cleveland Clinic (2022, May) “Endorphins: What They Are and How to Boost Them.” (Accessed March 2024)
  3. ScienceDirect (2022) “Neuropsychiatric manifestations in vitamin B12 deficiency.”(Accessed March 2024)
  4. JAMA Network (2023, September) “Consumption of Ultraprocessed Food and Risk of Depression.” (Accessed March 2024) 
  5. Cleveland Clinic (2022, March) “Serotonin: What is it, function & levels.” (Accessed March 2024) 
  6. Cureus (2023, January) “Role of Physical Activity on Mental Health and Well-Being: A Review.” (Accessed March 2024)
  7. Scientific Electronic Library Online (2021, September) “Physical activity, exercise, and mental disorders: it is time to move on.” (Accessed March 2024)
  8. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2022, May) “Do people with mental illness and substance use disorders use tobacco more often?” (Accessed March 2024)
  9. National Institute of Mental Health (2021) “Chronic Illness and Mental Health: Recognizing and Treating Depression.” (Accessed March 2024) 
  10. Springer Nature (2022) “Multimorbidity. Nature reviews.” (Accessed March 2024) 
  11. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (2022, March) “How Sleep Works – How Much Sleep Is Enough?” (Accessed March 2024)  
  12. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (2022, June) “Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency – How Sleep Affects Your Health” (Accessed March 2024) 
  13. Health Psychology Research (2019, March) “The effects of aerobic exercise training on mental health and self-esteem of type 2 diabetes mellitus patients.” (Accessed March 2024) 
  14. ‌Google Arts & Culture (2024) “Explore The Ancient Roots of Yoga. Google Arts & Culture.” (Accessed March 2024)  
  15. International Journal of Yoga (2023, April. “The Future of Yoga for Mental Health Care.” (Accessed March 2024) 
  16. Frontiers in Nutrition (2022, September) “Carbohydrate and sleep: An evaluation of putative mechanisms.” (Accessed March 2024)

NCBI (2015, April) “Food, Mood, and Brain Health: Implications for the Modern Clinician.” (Accessed April 2024)

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