Updated 18th July 2022

Understanding the connections between mental and physical wellbeing

● What do we mean by mental wellbeing?

● How is mental wellbeing related to overall health?

●     What has ZOE discovered about mental wellbeing?

●     How can we look after our mental wellbeing?

●     What do we still need to find out about mental wellbeing?

ZOE’s focus has always been on understanding and maximizing health for everyone, whether that’s through the ZOE Health Study or our work on nutrition and the microbiome.

We’re now broadening out to look at other health conditions, using our unique data-driven approach to tackle some of the biggest health challenges we face today, including cancer, heart disease and dementia.

Together with our study contributors, we’ll be investigating how our lives shape our health, immunity and wellbeing, based around five interconnected strands of health:

●     Diet

●     Sleep

●     Physical activity

●     Brain health

●     Social and health habits

What do we mean by mental wellbeing?

Mental wellbeing means something different for everyone, but it can be used to describe our emotional state, our capacity to manage life around us, and build relationships with others.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) definition, mental health is “a state of well-being in which an individual realizes their own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to their community.” 

There are many components to good mental wellbeing, including social, psychological, and biological factors. Some of these needs might need to be fulfilled before we can achieve others. For example, it might be difficult to reach higher levels of mental wellbeing and development, such as achieving our creative potential, if our basic safety and security needs are not being met. 

Mental wellbeing also exists on a spectrum. There is not only ‘good mental health’ and ‘poor mental health’ but lots of space in between, and where we sit on the spectrum might change throughout our life.

This means mental wellbeing is more than just the absence of mental ill health - something we talked about at our webinar on COVID and mental health.

How is mental wellbeing related to overall health?

Mental wellbeing is in itself a core pillar of health – as the WHO says, “there is no health without mental health” – but there are also important connections between our mental and our physical health.

When we are not feeling well mentally, we’re less able to look after ourselves physically and are at greater risk of harm from others and ourselves. Sadly, this is reflected in the fact that people living with severe mental ill health die around 15-20 years earlier than those with good mental wellbeing.

But there are many more complex interactions between mind and body, which we are only just beginning to unravel.

Firstly, we know that good mental health is linked to brain health. It has also been shown that mental health conditions might be associated with dementia, suggesting that good mental health in early life may delay or prevent dementia later on. And keeping your mind active in older age, for example through reading and playing games, could delay dementia by as much as 5 years.

Our mental wellbeing is also closely linked to our diet. What we eat can affect how we feel in many ways, including through the vagus nerve, changes in blood glucose and hormone levels, and through the gut microbiome.

There’s also growing evidence that the microbes in your gut could influence mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. The gut microbiome affects the production of serotonin, commonly known as the happiness hormone, along with other chemicals that are important for how we feel.

Our gut microbiome can influence the level of inflammation in our bodies, which has been linked to several mental health conditions. Diets associated with inflammation, such as diets that are high in added sugar and ultra-processed foods, have also been linked to poor mental health. A Mediterranean diet however, rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes, has been found in several studies to prevent and alleviate symptoms of depression.

The connections between mind and body can go both ways. Physical health problems can significantly increase the risk of poor mental health, and around 30% of people with a long-term physical health condition also experience a mental health problem. It’s also long been known that physical activity can help improve conditions like anxiety and depression.

Being physically healthy is an important way of protecting our mental wellbeing, and doing what we can for our mental health is also a good way of reducing our risk of developing physical health problems.

What has ZOE discovered about mental wellbeing?

As part of our COVID study, we carried out a survey to find out how the pandemic has affected mental wellbeing.

We analyzed data from more than 700,000 people and found several factors that were associated with feeling better, or having fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.

These ‘feel good’ activities included spending more time in green space, being physically active, and talking more to friends and family over the phone or online.

We also found that some activities were associated with feeling worse, including spending less time with pets, smoking and vaping more, and spending more time in front of a screen. 

Other habits associated with mental wellbeing during the pandemic were drinking, sleep quality and activity levels. We found that drinking alcohol less often, sleeping better and being more physically active were all associated with lower anxiety and depression scores.

Our survey also showed that it was young people, aged 16 – 24, whose mental health was most likely to have taken a hit during the pandemic. This might be because of the impact of the pandemic on their social lives and future plans, such as going to university or moving out of the family home. 

How can we look after our mental wellbeing?

As our mental health survey highlighted, there are a number of ways we can look after our mental wellbeing, including:

Being physically active

Being physically active releases endorphins, which can produce a feeling of happiness or even euphoria after exercise, and contribute to good mental health. A study of college students in the US found that those who were physically active were less likely to report poor mental health and feeling stressed. 

Spending time outdoors 

Spending time outdoors and especially in green space has been associated with better mental health and benefits for depression and anxiety.

Getting enough sleep 

Sleep has a well-established connection to our mental wellbeing, with a consistent lack of or poor quality sleep being a risk factor for poor mental health.

Socializing

Social networks are an important way for us to feel connected to others and to share our experiences. Having strong social connections has been found to support and protect our mental wellbeing in a number of ways.

Relaxing

Taking time to wind down and relax is an important way of managing the stresses of life. Techniques like meditation and mindfulness and yoga have been shown to improve mental health, but there are many ways to chill out so choose the ones that work for you.

Eating well

The food we eat has an important effect on how we feel and eating regularly and eating a balanced diet can help to boost our mental wellbeing.

If you’d like some help with your mental wellbeing, you can talk to your doctor or explore a therapy service, many of which are now offered online. 

What do we still need to find out about mental wellbeing?

Despite all the progress that has been made in recent years, there are still plenty of unanswered questions about the connections between our lifestyles, physical health and mental wellbeing.

ZOE’s large-scale, data-driven approach offers a powerful way to find answers to these questions and more, not just for diet but across all five strands of health

Our research into other health conditions aim to connect each of our personal health journeys to patterns in the wider population, revealing new insights into health and disease that could help us all lead healthier, happier lives.  

Together, we’re changing the future of health research. To get involved, simply download the ZOE app, fill in your health profile, and get in the habit of logging daily health reports. We’ll be adding new studies and research activities as we bring them online, so watch this space for updates.

Help science and keep logging.

Explore the ZOE Health Academy to learn more about the science of nutrition, healthy living, and immunity.

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