We all have that runner friend who tells you how training for a marathon is a moving meditation. Or that usually stressed-looking cousin who looks incredibly calm after a yoga class. And have you noticed how much happier you feel after a brisk walk in the park, a fun-filled Zumba session, a bike ride on a lakeside or a sweaty spin session?
No wonder that age-old adage that a healthy mind resides in a healthy body, as the Roman poet Juvenal once said as far back as 1st century AD, is still going strong. And guess what? The latest scientific research continues to back up this claim. We often think that our physical and mental health are separate, but that is not strictly true.
Ask Hirak Patel, a counselling psychologist at Fortis Hospital Mulund & Hiranandani Hospital, Vashi. She points out that a 2017 study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine data that was collected from 10,693 individuals with an age range of 50 and above showed a connection between mental and physical health. Luke Coutinho, a holistic lifestyle coach and the founder of YouCare- All about YOU, a health portal, is wont to agree. Everything first starts from a thought. A thought becomes a feeling, which then turns into action, leading to an experience. And this operates vice versa. Anything happening in our body impacts our mind almost immediately, he believes.
The science behind it
What is common between good things like exercise, laughter, dark chocolate, music, sex, dance and meditation? That is right: endorphins. Dr Alok V. Kulkarni, a mental wellness expert and senior consultant psychiatrist at the Manas Institute of Mental Health, is a strong advocate of exercise for mental health. The endorphins produced by it serve to create a general sense of well-being. He also points out that people with poor mental health are at risk for chronic physical conditions and vice versa, a view supported by Dr. Siddhant Bhargava, fitness and nutritional scientist and the co-founder of personalised health and nutrition company Food Darzee.
Bhargava points out that emotions are rooted in the body and are integral to the autonomic nervous system that affects our organs, blood vessels and glands. Physical health problems, in all likelihood, will increase the risk of developing mental health problems like anxiety and depression, he points out. He adds that physical activities along with balanced meals can improve the cognitive health. Similarly, unwarranted anxiety and depression can foster the development of serious multiple physical diseases, he says.
Anita Pandya, a film-maker based in Mumbai had been facing digestion issues for nearly a year. She tried various diets and even medicines but saw little improvement. It was only when she turned to a psychiatrist that she understood how her anxiety was crippling her gut health. I never imagined the two to be interlinked but with the help of my psychiatrist, I dealt with my anxiety, and now, am able to function better overall, she admits.
Coutinho points out that there is an intrinsic connection between the gut and the brain; the health of one inevitably affects the health of the other. The gut is called the second brain and it is connected with the brain via a system of nerves called the enteric nervous system. It is as real as any other systems like autonomic or central nervous systems. So, the gut and the brain communicate almost every second via ENS, he adds.
In his opinion, every mental health practitioner must focus on gut health as most conditions stem from a gut that is compromised. Every third patient he meets has a gut issue, he claims, whether chronic acidity, constipation, or something like IBS, colitis or acid reflux. Also, 80-90% of serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter, is produced in the gut. When the gut is functioning to its optimum, it produces the right amount of serotonin."This speaks so much about why we feel a certain way if we even experience a stomach ache or cramp," says Coutinho.
He adds that what you eat just impact how you look; it also impacts mind-space, personality, mood and character. Our body relies on nutrition to manufacture the right number of neurotransmitters and hormones that make us feel good. Amino acids are the building blocks of neurotransmitters like endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, GABA, oxytocin, etc, which are so important and the reason behind why we feel happy, sad, motivated, loved, intimate, aroused, etc. Any imbalances in these neurotransmitters, due to a faulty lifestyle (your diet playing a major role), can actually lead us to behave in an unusual way - have mood swings, respond to things differently, have cravings etc.
His view is supported by Bhargava who reveals that an inadequate diet can lead to fatigue, and impaired decision-making and may lead to stress and depression. He advises that one eats plenty of fruits and vegetables along with foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids for mental health. And yes, legumes, nuts and seeds are also excellent brain foods, says Bhargava, adding that one must avoid processed foods containing maida and sugar as much as possible.
In fact, the best diet for the heart and brain is, not surprisingly, the Mediterranean Diet, as Dr Kulkarni points out. This diet involves the high consumption of olive oil, legumes, unrefined cereals, fruits and vegetables, moderate consumption of fish and low consumption of non-fish meat, he says. And yes, the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association, too, recommend the Mediterranean diet for reducing the risk of cardiovascular disorders and type 2 diabetes, respectively.
Exercise: An underrated antidepressant
Dr Bhargava believes that our sedentary lifestyles play a huge role in the increase of mental health diseases such as anxiety, depression, panic disorder, and so on. He firmly believes that the importance of exercise has not yet been adequately understood or appreciated. Many forms of workouts help improve mental health issues, including walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, aerobic exercises, and even dancing. According to him, exercise leads to an increase in blood circulation to the brain and alleviates low self-esteem and social withdrawal.
This is not to say that exercise can replace medication if one is struggling with a mental health condition, as Coutinho points out. However, exercising coupled with an active lifestyle can make treatment more effective. It could possibly even help one reduce their dependence on medication over time. "A regular exercise routine also promotes the growth of new neurons and neural connections, thereby boosting brain function and memory," he says.
And yes, the better sleep and endorphin rush that regular exercise can ensure should not be dismissed. It also helps people have a better relationship with their bodies, as Patel points out. “Exercises help boost one's self-esteem and confidence especially, who are conscious about their body image," she says.
So what is the right amount of exercise for mental health? Dr Kulkarni suggests that adults get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week. "The physical activity could be split into slots of 30 minutes a day for 5 days a week. It is a good idea to mix and match aerobic exercises with strength and conditioning," says Dr Kulkarni, who feels that aerobic exercise should be interspersed with strength and conditioning work. And yes, moving throughout the day is important, too. Sitting, as that cliche goes, often ends up becoming the new smoking
We may have heard that meditation and mindfulness help with management of stress, anxiety and depression, amongst other mental health issues, but science has proven it to be so, Dr Kulkarni remarks that consistent and sustained practice of meditation releases more amounts of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), a key molecule involved in plastic changes related to learning and memory. Consistent practice of yoga, meditation and mindfulness helps with better well-being and stress management, he adds
Coutinho supports Dr Kulkarni's view adding that doing meditation or breathing exercises or pranayama is the quickest way to shift our body from a state of stress to a state of calm, meaning from a sympathetic state to a parasympathetic state. He adds that certain pranayama techniques like Bee Breathing and Omkar chanting can also relax the nervous system and our mind because of the sound and vibrations produced during the practice. He firmly believes that many degenerative brain conditions can be prevented to a huge extent by taking care of our physical bodies. “When we consult our clients with Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, we notice commonalities like - high inflammation, poor gut health, deficiency of Vitamin D3 and B12, and diabetes type 2 (in most cases), which could have been prevented too,” he says, adding that there is scope to prevent mental health conditions from either manifesting in the body or getting worse with nutrition, exercise and sleep.”
Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based psychotherapist