When trying to overcome an illness or optimize our health, we tend to put emotions and mental health on the back burner in order to focus on diet, exercise, and supplementation. There is, however, new research published on how our emotions and mental health (Emotional Health) can affect our overall well-being. This research suggests that the “mind-body connection” is just as important as our workout regimen or the kinds of foods we eat.
The way you handle your emotions will either impact your health in a very positive way or a very negative way. Let’s dig deeper into how your emotions can affect your health and what you can do to manage them.
The Mind-Body Connection
We now know that mental well-being impacts the physical body and likewise, physical well-being impacts mental health. The functional medicine approach takes this into consideration. We acknowledge that all of our organs and systems are connected in one way or another—the mind and body connection is no exception.
You might wonder, “But how do they affect one another?”. One way the mind can affect the body is through hormones. There are hormone receptors everywhere in the body—your brain is flush with them! When you feel a certain emotion, your brain sends signals to release specific hormones, whether it be cortisol when you are stressed, or oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin when you are feeling affectionate and loving towards someone.
Since hormones travel through the bloodstream, they can travel to the gut, reproductive organs, skin, kidneys or any other part of your body. The hormones that your brain signaled to be released (because of the emotions you expressed) have the potential to bind to receptors, possibly affecting your fertility, metabolism, appetite and more.
How Negative Emotions Can Affect Your Health
When you experience feelings of negative emotion, it can negatively affect your health. For example, if you are feeling angry and don’t know how to manage your emotions, you may let it build up. Not knowing how to handle it, you might experience:
- High blood pressure
- Increased risk for cardiovascular disease
- Poor digestion
- Poor nutrition or imbalance
- Accumulation of toxins
- Hormone imbalance
- Weakened immune system
Evolution has led our bodies to create a “fight and flight” response that sends out chemicals when we experience a stressor: anxiety, fear, worry. While this was helpful when humans struggled to find food and safe living quarters, our body’s response to stress isn’t as beneficial now. Most of us experience stress and negative emotion on a daily basis, but our body’s biological response is not benefiting us the majority of the time.
Numerous studies have shown how chronic stress can have a major impact on health. When you feel overwhelmingly stressed out day after day, because of a job, relationship, or situation it can increase inflammation throughout your body—which can promote a countless number of diseases. Emotional Health is important to balance.
Negative emotions can lower your immune response, making you more susceptible to diseases and illnesses. Stress can also increase your adrenaline and cortisol levels which can lead to immune system suppression, which increases your chance of infection. Long term stress (from feeling those negative emotions nonstop) can result in incomplete response to infection. This could lead to lower energy production and even chronic fatigue.
A study done at the University of Wisconsin showed how negative and depressive thoughts (shown as higher activity in the right prefrontal cortex) resulted in lower antibody levels. This could be a result of a connection between the immune system and the prefrontal cortex via the hormonal system.
Chronic stress can also enhance and quicken the aging process by shortening your telomeres (protective ends on your DNA strands), exposing your DNA to potential damage. When your DNA gets damaged, your cells become unhealthy which can lead to mutations (and possible tumor cells) or autophagy where your cells get destroyed. These both lead to aging diseases and negative health outcomes.
How Positive Emotions Can Affect Your Health
When you feel joy, love, excitement, and overall contentment, your body responds to that in a positive way. You may feel more energetic, sleep better at night, recover from cardiovascular stress better, and have a boosted immune system.
This all happens because our mind has the capacity to release these health-boosting molecules. Oxytocin (the love hormone) has the ability to dilate arteries and lower your blood pressure. Serotonin (the happy hormone) plays a beneficial part in digestion by helping move things along. It can also decrease appetite, so you are less likely to overeat and more likely to lose weight. These are just two examples of happy hormones that can help your health. So while you are feeling positive emotions, it’s also enhancing your physical wellbeing.
Overcome Negativity By Transitioning to Positive Thinking
If you find that you are a person that has a hard time dealing with your emotions or have a harder time seeing the light in hard situations, there is still hope. As long as you are proactive in wanting to change, there are ways to rewire your brain to think more positively!
Try incorporating these practices into your daily life so you can reap the health benefits of seeing the world in a more positive light.
Ways to Improve Positive Emotion
Practice Gratitude: Try journaling, talking about, or just taking time to acknowledge the things in your life that bring you happiness and joy. Focus on the good things in your life rather than the bad.
Talk to Someone, Don’t Bottle Up Your Feelings: When you get things off your chest, you feel better. Communicating how you feel to a close loved one can be a major way to manage negative emotions. Talking it out can make you realize that the problem might not actually be as bad as you think, or could give you clarity on what you need to do to fix it.
Try Meditation: Taking time for yourself may help clear your mind and make you feel lighter and more grounded. When you take time to breathe, you can acknowledge the emotions you are feeling and then let them go. This approach takes practice, so don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t come as naturally. There are Mediation Apps out there, like the Calm App, that can guide you if you are new to meditation.
Exercise (outside if you can!): You release endorphins when you exercise. These are feel-good hormones that boost your mood. Even better, try to exercise outside in nature to help you feel grounded and more relaxed.
Maintain a Healthy Gut: More research is being done on the brain-gut axis connection. Having a healthy gut can affect your mood and vice versa. When we fuel our body with processed foods, it can lead to an unhealthy microbiome in the gut. This can lead to anxiety and depression. Try to eat an abundance of organic fruits, vegetables, and whole foods to heal both your gut and your brain. (If you want to really understand what’s going on in your gut, contact us to schedule a comprehensive intestinal microbiome analysis.)
Take Care Of Your Emotional Health
Optimizing your health on a physical level can only take you so far. It’s vital that emotional health is recognized as a critical component of your overall well-being. Once you take care of your emotions, you’ll see your physical health improve as a domino effect. Tending to your mental state is the ultimate form of self-care. Once you focus on your happiness, you will feel more inclined to care for your physical body as well.
When Self-Care Isn’t Enough
If you have been working hard to improve your emotional health, but still feel like there’s something missing, it might be time to assess your brain chemistry. Our brains are highly complex, and even small imbalances in neurotransmitters can have significant impacts on our health and wellness.
If that sounds like you, in2GREAT is here to help. Our neurotransmitters lab panel tests levels for 31 different neurotransmitters, including oxytocin and serotonin. So if you’re ready to see the whole picture, contact us to set up an appointment at in2GREAT Functional Medicine in Overland Park, KS.