Poor Body Health May Indicate Poor Mental Health—Experts Discuss Mind-Body Connection

  • New research found that poor physical health can serve as a strong indicator of poor mental health.
  • The indication was particularly strong regarding the metabolic, liver, and immune system's correlation to mental well-being.
  • Experts recommend individuals keep track of physical and mental symptoms to help them better understand the connection between their physical health and mental well-being.

According to new research, poor physical health could be a strong indicator of mental health issues—even stronger than brain scans.

Scientists have long studied the connection between mental well-being and physical well-being. The ability to use one to clarify the other helps healthcare professionals and patients alike.

About 20% of American adults live with mental illness. In a 2021 National Institutes of Health survey, nearly half of all Americans surveyed reported feeling depressed or anxious.

“Paying attention to the rest of the body that is not the brain is definitely something we need to be doing in psychiatric patients, not just to take care of those patients but to make sure we know what is going on,” John Denninger, MD, PhD, director of integrative science and clinical training at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, told Health.

Woman sitting at the table using a tissue

Woman sitting at the table using a tissue

Getty Images / Kathrin Ziegler

What the Research Says

To expand the growing body of research on how mental and physical health are closely linked, researchers in Australia used data banks of adults in the U.S., U.K., and Australia.

The study compared nearly 86,000 people with psychiatric disorders to about the same number of people who did not. The psychiatric disorders ranged from neuropsychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, to depression and generalized anxiety disorder. 

The team used a combination of markers found in blood, urine, and other samples that correlated with the function of seven different body systems: lungs, musculoskeletal, kidney, metabolic, liver, cardiovascular, and immune systems. They also used data from MRI brain scans. Armed with this information, the researchers divided people into different groups based on the quality of their physical health.

The data revealed that poor physical health, particularly when it involved the metabolic, liver, or immune system, was a better indication of poor mental health than brain changes that show up on an MRI.

The study’s lead author, Ye Ella Tian, MBBS, PhD, a Mary Lugton Postdoc Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Neuropsychiatry Centre in Australia, noted that her team was surprised by the findings. 

“Mental illnesses are typically understood as disorders of the brain,” she explained. The results of the new study did not suggest this understanding is incorrect, but did “indicate that poor body health is also a very important component of mental illness.”

The research was not able to determine whether or not the connection was related to people having a more difficult time taking care of their physical health, if they also were struggling with poor mental health, or if the connection is related to something else. Tian noted that further research will need to examine why poor mental health appeared to be tied specifically to poor liver, immune system, and metabolic health. 

For now, “mental health professionals and physicians need to work more closely together to monitor and attend to the physical health of these people, even from very early stages of psychiatric and mental care,” she emphasized.

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Deciphering Mental Illness and Physical Illness

While it’s useful to make the distinction between physical illnesses that are related to mental health and those that are not, Tied noted that a clear distinction is questionable.

Scientists are still unraveling many mysteries of the brain, including the influence a person’s thoughts and mental state have on their physical body. According to Dr. Denninger, the concept of mind-body connection is a bit of a false dichotomy since the brain is part of the body.

“We benefit ourselves when we recognize that the brain and the rest of the body is one system,” he explained. “It gets rid of some of these problems with trying to determine: Is it in the brain or in the body?”

Tian suspects the relationship between mental health and physical health is both complex and bidirectional, meaning physical health and mental health affect each other.

Past research has documented how mental illnesses such as anxiety can create a feedback loop with a wide range of physical symptoms, such as stomach aches, dizziness, or chest pain. Because of this, people with psychiatric conditions may not get diagnosed with physical illness in the same ways that healthcare providers diagnose people without the conditions.

“It’s not unusual for people who have a psychiatric illness for everything to be prescribed to the mental illness, so many ailments get missed,” noted Dr. Denninger. 

So how can you determine which physical conditions are caused by a poor mental state?

“My glib answer to that is you can’t,” Dr. Denninger stressed. “These things are so closely intertwined that it’s very difficult to tell what’s being caused by the brain and what is being caused by the body. It’s a complex system…anytime we have something going on in our bodies, our brain plays a role.” 

The important thing to understand is that it’s vital for people treating patients with psychiatric conditions to also enable people to take care of their physical health and address associated concerns.

“We know that mental illness is associated with reduced life expectancy,” added Tian. “And the majority of deaths in people with mental illness relates to poor physical health.”

Tracking Symptoms of Mental and Physical Ailments

While it’s difficult to draw a line between mental and physical ailments, Dr. Denninger recommended keeping a log of symptoms, both physical and mental (or emotional), to better understand what may be triggering a physical symptom.

For example, does a person tend to get sick more often when they are experiencing poor mental health, or does it seem to be unrelated?

“The big mystery about the mind-body connection is not the fact that there is a connection, but understanding for all these disorders,” he stressed. “What is the path from what happens in our brains to what we perceive in our bodies?”

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