How Physical Health Habits Impact Mental Health – Verily

Our mind and body are interconnected, so by caring for one, we also care for the other

Have you ever wondered whether you are feeling anxious or just feeling the effects of caffeine after a delicious cup of cold brew from your favorite coffee joint? Maybe you’ve noticed that your coworkers know when you’ve had a late night because you are extra irritable the next day? Perhaps you’ve experienced the phenomenon known as “hangxiety” (anxiety during a hangover).

Without even realizing it, you may be making decisions about your physical health that affect your mental health. While anxiety, depression, and stress can manifest themselves through physical symptoms, changes in your physical health can actually help or hurt your mental health. For example, your sleep habits, your caffeine habits, your alcohol consumption, and even diet can impact your mental health for better or for worse. Here’s what you need to know about how your physical health can affect your mental health.

Caffeine

Your daily cup of coffee may have both positive and negative effects on your mental health. While, on the one hand, caffeine has been shown to reduce your risk of depression, it has also been shown to potentially worsen your anxiety symptoms.Consuming too much caffeine can lead to increased anxiety or exacerbate current anxiety symptoms. One study found that individuals who were predisposed to higher levels of anxiety were more likely to have a higher sensitivity to the effects of caffeine.Why does this happen? Similar to anxiety, caffeine can trigger your body’s “fight or flight” response.

Common effects of caffeine include:

  • Agitation
  • Sleep issues
  • Feeling restless
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Increased heart rate
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Changes in mood

Common symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Feeling restless
  • Being easily fatigued
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Difficulty controlling feelings of worry
  • Sleep issues

As you can see, there is quite a bit of overlap between the effects of caffeine and the symptoms of anxiety including sleep issues, restlessness, changes in mood, and agitation. If you are prone to anxiety, consuming too much caffeine could worsen your already existing symptoms.

The FDA has found that it is generally safe to drink up to 4-5 cups of coffee a day (400 milligrams) without experiencing any negative effects. But keep in mind that everyone has a different sensitivity to the effects of caffeine. I find that, for many of my psychotherapy clients, it takes a little trial and error to figure out how much caffeine they can consume before it affects their anxiety symptoms. For example, I have some clients who steer clear of caffeine altogether, some who drink “half-caff,” and some who avoid drinking coffee after a certain time of day (after 3 p.m., for example).

Alcohol

Your drinking habits could also negatively affect your anxiety or depression. Many individuals turn to drinking as a way to self-medicate whether it’s to deal with negative emotions or experiences or as “liquid courage” to smooth out any nervousness before a social event. Because alcohol is a depressant, drinking too much while you are experiencing a depressive episode can actually worsen your depressive symptoms, according to research. It is estimated that about 30-50 percent of individuals who drink too much also experience depression which is a toxic combination.

Drinking too much can also worsen your anxiety symptoms. Some people experience “hangxiety” the morning after drinking heavily. I’ve had several psychotherapy clients report experiencing this phenomenon, and it often triggers and worsens their already existing anxiety. This can lead to drinking again in order to self-medicate and to attempt to reduce feelings of anxiety, while unintentionally creating an anxiety-producing loop.

Sleep

The amount and quality of sleep you are getting can also affect your mental health. For example, research has found that insomnia and other sleep issues can increase your susceptibility to developing depression. In addition, a lack of sleep can trigger a manic episode for individuals who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And while there is a lower risk of developing anxiety due to insomnia, sleep issues can contribute to the worsening of current anxiety symptoms. In my psychotherapy work, I find that almost every client who adjusts their sleep schedule and habits finds that their anxiety and depression improves to some degree.

Diet

There is also a great deal of new research on how what you eat affects your mood. For example, did you know that about 95 percent of your serotonin receptors (linked to mood) are located in the lining of your gut? Some research has found that diets low in healthy carbohydrates, protein, and fatty acids often precede a depressive episode (carbohydrates can contribute to an increased sense of wellbeing) or contribute to a depressed mood. In contrast, diets high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, olive oil, low-fat dairy, antioxidants, and low in animal foods (similar to the Mediterranean diet) are associated with a decreased risk for depression.

There is also some evidence that a diet low in magnesium can be linked to depression and anxiety. If a client reports a poor diet, I often recommend they consult with their doctor for blood work or that they work with a nutritionist to address the deficiencies in their diet that may be exacerbating their symptoms.

While there are infinite ways our minds and bodies are interconnected, what’s great about these factors is that they are accessible for each person to consider and adjust as they see fit on their road to wellness.