It’s well known that the body and mind mutually influence each other – every illness that affects us has both a psychological and physical dimension. Mental disorders have complex connections with other health problems – they can be a risk factor or an early symptom of other diseases, but this relationship is bidirectional and sometimes somatic diseases occur with secondary symptoms of a mental health problem.
The human body is an incredibly complex and entangled machine – both physical illnesses and mental disorders are the result of many factors, not only biological but also psychosocial. Each of these factors can trigger a reaction, the final outcome of which we observe as a concerning symptom.
The Dark Side of Progress
Modernity has provided us with faster medical development, increased life expectancy, and easy access to new technologies. But just as there is no light without darkness, change always has its consequences. It’s hard not to notice that the progress we humans are so proud of comes at the cost of lifestyle changes – and these have an enormous impact on our mental health.
In Western societies, a sedentary lifestyle has become the norm, and the quality of our diet has significantly deteriorated compared to previous generations. Add this to a lack of proper sleep hygiene, substance abuse, and psychosocial factors such as competition at work, pressure, social isolation, and poor relationships with family members.
Unfortunately, the result of this equation is the increasingly disrupted functioning of the body – both physical and mental.
The Psychosocial Aftermath of the Pandemic
The past few years of living in the reality of the pandemic has affected us in a way that no one could have predicted – our daily habits and lifestyles have radically changed. Social distancing, isolation, stress, fear for our own health and that of our loved ones, additional pressure, and decreased access to medical help – this is a lot for an average person to handle.
Maybe in your case, now is the time when you’re reflecting on your own health. Maybe you’re worried that your lack of appetite, apathy, sleep problems, unexplained and sudden anxiety attacks, constant fatigue, and the feeling that nothing makes you happy anymore, is something more than just a temporary slump.
Many of us are experiencing these thoughts.
We usually assume that anxiety, mood swings, and the general deterioration of the way we function are the result of mental disorders – after all, that would make the most sense and seems fairly logical. But how could the state of our mind be the result of what the body is going through?
Although in some cases the symptoms described above may indicate a mental health problem, before making a diagnosis it’s necessary to rule out other diseases – simply to be sure that what we’re going through is not the result of an undetected somatic disease.
Sometimes symptoms that disrupt our mental well-being and cause problems that are difficult for us to face can be a side effect of a body-related health condition.
Improper nutrition not only leads to obesity and related diseases but also to serious deficiencies – not eating enough fruits and vegetables can cause vitamin and mineral deficiencies, as well as insufficient intake of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory folates.
Vitamin B1 and B12 deficiencies are particularly responsible for symptoms such as fatigue, drowsiness, weakness, difficulty concentrating, and in some cases even delusional psychotic syndromes.
When the heart's function impaired in any way, it’s immediately reflected in the brain. Circulatory diseases also pose a risk of hypoxia, which can have serious psychiatric consequences.
If you experience heart arrhythmia combined with shortness of breath and anxiety, ask your doctor about basic cardiological diagnostics – an ECG, a Holter monitor test, an echocardiogram, as well as blood pressure monitoring. If you’re being treated for hypertension, read the leaflets of the medications you’re taking – some blood pressure-lowering agents can cause depression.
Cardiovascular diseases are also associated with the risk of depression, which may also be related to low physical activity. The recent restrictions in going to the gym, and for a while even in engaging in healthy outdoor activities, have unfortunately had a negative impact on our cardiovascular health.
A sedentary lifestyle, which in many cases has been brought about by the transition to remote work, also increases the risk of obesity, and in turn the occurrence of cardiovascular disease.
Diseases of the Digestive System
Mental health and the digestive system are closely related. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone – who among us hasn’t had a stomach ache before an important exam? The liver plays a particularly important role here – it’s responsible for the metabolism of toxins and for maintaining a chemical balance in the body.
Abnormalities in liver function can affect the activity of the nervous system and a person’s mental health.
Liver function tests assess how this organ works and includes measurements of alanine aminotransferase (ALT), aspartate aminotransferase (AST), gamma-glutamyl transferase (GGT), alkaline phosphatase (ALP), and bilirubin levels.
If we’re going through an emotionally difficult time and are concerned about our symptoms, this may sometimes also be associated with alcohol abuse, which is a particular indication to take care of our liver and check its condition.
Not only genetic and biological factors play a key role in the underlying cause and development of diabetes but also psychosocial factors – some authors even classify diabetes as psychosomatic disorders. A poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, stress-related high consumption of high-energy snacks with a high glycemic index – all of this can lead to the development of type II diabetes. The symptoms are fatigue and apathy, mood swings, headaches, leg cramps, and vision disorders.
To diagnose diabetes, basic tests include checking the level of fasting blood glucose, performing a glucose tolerance test, and testing the level of glycated hemoglobin in the blood.
Endocrine System Diseases
The secretory activity of the thyroid has a significant impact on our mental health – its hyperactivity can manifest itself as emotional instability, feelings of restlessness, insomnia, impulsiveness and rashness, difficulties in concentrating, and in severe cases sometimes leads to the occurrence of psychotic illnesses.
In hypothyroidism, on the other hand, we may experience severe fatigue, decreased appetite, muscle pain, memory problems, or psychomotor retardation.
To assess thyroid function, a thyroid panel test is performed, which is a blood test that checks the levels of TSH, FT4, FT3, anti-TPO, anti-TG. These tests can rule out both endocrine disorders and associated autoimmune disease, such as Hashimoto's.
Water and Electrolyte Metabolism Disorders
Electrolytes are essential for life, they regulate the heart and the nervous system, participate in the process of delivering oxygen to tissues, and help maintain acid-base balance. An imbalance of electrolyte concentrations can lead to damage of the nervous system, which result in excessive feelings of drowsiness and fatigue.
Insufficient calcium intake from food can lead to hypocalcemia. Hypocalcemia, hypercalcemia, and other electrolyte disorders can cause mental health symptoms. To assess the state of water and electrolyte metabolism, an ionogram is performed – a test that checks the level of electrolytes in the plasma: sodium (Na+), potassium (K+), calcium (Ca2+), magnesium (Mg2+), chloride ions (Cl-), phosphate ions.
The Body and Mind – A System of Connected Vessels
The human body and the mind are interconnected vessels. As the WHO has reported:
There is no health without mental health.
The pandemic has significantly changed our lives, so it’s completely normal to experience a noticeable decrease in mood, accompanied by anxiety and concerns about what lies ahead.
Our eating habits have changed, the consumption of processed food has increased, while that of fruits and vegetables has decreased. It’s important to remember that changes in our body weight lead not only to potential diseases associated with obesity, but they also affect our well-being and self-esteem, which has an effect on our emotional state and mental balance.
Health is the Most Important
Monitoring our health – especially in such an exceptional situation as a pandemic, when there was less access to medical care and basic tests – is an extremely important aspect of self-care and expressing love for yourself – for the body and mind, which were overwhelmed during this difficult and demanding time.
Let's make space for our health, while also taking care of the different aspects of our daily life – diet, activity, sleep, and time for ourselves. And remember you can always seek help for any reason and whatever the state of your mental health is, no matter how trivial. Because you’re most important..