The link between mental health and physical health in college students

The relationship between our bodies and brains are complex, but research is helping us develop a more clear picture of just how interconnected they are. Understanding this mind-body connection and taking steps to cultivate holistic health habits can help us improve overall mental and physical health. 

This is an urgent issue that has come to the forefront for administrators and schools across the country. College is traditionally a time of transition that tests the mental health resilience of students. Academic stress, anxiety and depression, identity formation, and navigating new social environments are as much a part of the college experience as grades and exams. Covid has amplified and contributed to the mental health impact for many students. What do we need to know to better understand the mind-body connection and improve our health and wellness?

How are they related?

The distinction between mental health and physical health is not always clear. But there is enough evidence to support a deep and complex interconnectedness between the two. Let’s look at some ways mental and physical health impact each other.

Fatigue and mental illness

Anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders can lead to a persistent feeling of exhaustion and tiredness. A study conducted by Bangor University showed that mental illness has a close connection to fatigue, and that persistent tiredness can easily lead to a decline in students’ physical health. When a student is chronically anxious or depressed, they are less likely to exercise and practice other healthy habits, leading to an increased vulnerability to disease.  

Cardiovascular health

A study conducted by the University of Sydney set out to see if acute emotions are capable of causing heart attacks. The studies show that in the two hours of intense anger (which the study defines as tense body language, clenched teeth or fists, and ready to explode), the individual chances of a heart attack becomes 8.5 times higher. When it comes to anxiety, the risk of heart attack increases by a whopping 9.5 times.

Depression and diabetes 

Researchers have also discovered a connection between diabetes and depression. One of these studies has shown that people who are both depressed and diabetic have more severe symptoms than those who only have diabetes. Another study has shown that those with both of these conditions are also 85% more likely to experience a heart attack. The research reveals the importance of locating people who are more at risk and monitoring their cardiovascular health. 

The immune system and depression

Depression is a common mental disorder in college students and it affects more than just mood and motivation. Depression can directly impact the body’s immune system by suppressing T Cell responses to viruses and bacteria, making it easier to get sick and stay sick longer. A weakened immune system can also lead to allergies or asthma. Research has also suggested that a compromised immune system can also be a contributing factor in developing depression. Stress, especially chronic stress, is capable of triggering an immune response that is believed to contribute to depression, as well.

Another study of depression and the inflammatory response shows that repeated exposure to stress causes the release cytokines – a type of protein linked with inflammation. Cytokines release causes damage in the medial prefrontal cortex – part of the brain that holds an essential role in depression. The researchers were able to trigger depressive symptoms as a result of the immune system response due to stress. 

Steps to improve mental and physical health

Prioritize sleep

For college students, it can be challenging to juggle time to attend class, study, work, and socialize. In an atmosphere of round-the-clock activity, sleep is often sacrificed to fit in everything that needs to be done. But without a good night’s rest, students risk experiencing mental and physical decline which can cascade into decreased academic performance, more time studying and increased stress, and a downward spiral.

Prioritizing a healthy sleep routine is an effective step towards improving mental health. This can be as simple as setting a solid bedtime, limiting or removing screentime an hour before bedtime, other sleep hygiene habits that promote rest and relaxation. 

Exercise

Regular exercise has been proven to raise the level of endorphins – the brain’s feel-good chemicals. The release of endorphins increases mental alertness, energy, and enhances mood. Exercise can also improve mental health by reducing anxiety and depression. Even mild to moderate exercise like brisk walking can have a positive impact on a person’s mental and physical state. Exercise has also been proven to help with sleep. 

Eat healthy

A well-balanced diet is essential for maintaining a healthy body and mind. Chances of increased levels of depression and anxiety are associated with diets high in added artificial sugar and white flours, processed foods, red meat, and butter. A diet of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, minerals, vitamins, whole grains and plenty of water will support a healthy body and mind and fuel overall increases in performance and success. 

Conclusion

Mental health is a serious issue and colleges are seeing a dramatic increase in the number of students seeking support. Sleep, exercise, nutrition can go a long way in helping combat the rising mental health crisis. By creating healthy habits for both mind and body, students can increase their overall health and resilience to meet the demands of college and beyond.