Most of us think about our mind and body as separate. It’s in our language. Phrases like “Trapped in this body” or “Out of body experience” imply that who we really are is somehow removed from what we see in the mirror.
And that makes some sense. Our thoughts operate outside of the moment-to-moment influence of our bodies. When people daydream they say that they were a million miles away, because that’s exactly what it feels like.
The idea of separation is made stronger by the way our minds interact with the body. The communication between the two seems simple. Signals for movement, and sensory information are exchanged. The body gathers information for you, and you tell it what to do.
But all this evidence of separation can be misleading.
The truth is that our physical health has much more influence on our mental health than we think. If you desire an increase in mental performance or emotional satisfaction, but haven’t paid much attention to your body’s influence, we’d like to give you a few reasons to reconsider.
#1. Exercise is an effective treatment for depression
The go-to answer for depression these days is often pharmaceuticals. And while psychiatric drugs have helped many people through dark times, a simpler, healthier option has been shown to be similarly effective.
One study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 1999 showed that regular exercise had similar results to the antidepressant Zoloft. In the study, both an exercising group and a medicated group saw a 60-70% success rate in treating depression levels. This study shows that simple physical activity can be as effective as antidepressants!
When medication is deemed advisable by healthcare professionals, you should listen. But if you battle depression, there’s just no reason not to take advantage of your body’s natural pick-me-up.
For more information on the link between exercise and depression check out this article from Harvard Medical School: Exercise and Depression
#2. Diet impacts the brain
Unless we’re talking metaphysics (we aren’t), when we talk about the mind, we mean our brain. And the brain, like all the tissues of the body, is affected by what we eat.
To operate efficiently, our brains need energy, hydration, and a host of nutrients. So why would we think that poor diets only made a difference to our waistbands?
The regulation of blood sugar is particularly important for mental performance. In the modern era of food, most of us have taken a few turns on the blood sugar roller coaster.
You eat foods that are high in sugar and carbohydrates. The food gives you a short-lived burst of energy. Your body dumps insulin in response, and your blood sugar drops. Low blood sugar leaves you dragging mentally and physically, and causes intense hunger, starting the ride again.
To sustain mental energy and clarity, you have to achieve more consistent blood sugar levels. That’s accomplished by avoiding the sugary, bready foods that start the rise and fall of blood sugar, and replacing them with foods that will keep you sustained for longer.
An excerpt from an excellent article by Brain Facts says it best:
“Our brains are sculpted by what we eat. If it’s too much fat, too much sugar, or just too much, there may be permanent consequences for our brain function. Keeping our brains in shape is one more reason to clean up our diets.”
#3. Obesity hurts memory
We’re all aware by now that being overweight means health problems. High blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart issues all come to mind. But The extra pounds could also be slowing down more than just your 100 yard dash.
Research has shown that the hippocampus (an area of the brain that is crucial for learning and memory) is diminished in those with higher body mass indexes. The hippocampus shrinks naturally as we age, but the loss is faster among people who carry too much body fat.
Studies show that the effect is substantial. For instance, obese people, on the whole, score lower on memory tests. Further tying memory deficiencies to body fat, is the fact that weight loss surgery has been effective in improving people’s memories. There’s also evidence that the constant inflammation caused by being overweight wears on the brain.
Our physical health dictates our mental state more than we would like to admit. The nutrients and calories that we take in, the presence of body fat, and the amount of exercise that we get all make a positive or negative impact on how we feel, and how clearly we think.
If you’re struggling with memory, mental clarity, or emotional problems, spending some time on your physical health is a really smart idea.
Gunstad J, Strain G, Devlin MJ, Wing R, Cohen RA, et al. Improved memory function 12 weeks after bariatric surgery. Surgery for Obesity and Related Diseases. 7: 465-72 (2010).