The Connection Between Physical and Mental Health

From a young age, we associate certain foods with specific feelings. We’re all aware of the positive and negative emotions typically linked with certain foods. However, the connection between food and health goes much deeper than most of us realise.

There is a complex vicious cycle at play when we eat certain foods; it affects our mental and physical health in ways you might not expect. The results can be extremely damaging to our overall health, both physically and mentally. Taking care of what you eat is about more than how you look, it’s about how you feel on the inside too. Our bodies cannot be understood as separate systems. To truly advocate good health we must look at the body as a whole. Thus our approach to healing and lasting good health must meet both our physical and mental needs.

Why Bad Habits Are Hard To Break

Sugar is a well known addictive substance. A study led by Dr Magalie Lenoir found cocaine-addicted rats, when given the option to consume cocaine or sugar, chose sugar. A shocking 94% showed a preference for sugar over cocaine.

Dr. Lenoir concluded from the findings that, “intense sweetness can surpass cocaine reward…sugar-rich diets, such as those now widely available in modern societies, [have] the potential to override self-control mechanisms, and lead to addiction.”

In other words, we’ve not evolved to consume the vast amounts of sugar now widely available in modern society. Consequently, our brains are not able to process the copious amounts of sugar, resulting in addiction.

Food addiction affects our physical and mental health as we become more reliant on the addictive substance to function. In the case of sugar, our bodies deteriorate with health issues such as diabetes, weight gain, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, reproductive problems, heart disease and gallstones.  Mental health is also affected as we lose confidence in our worsening physical health. Additionally, we can bombard ourselves with guilt and shame about our inability to take control.

Sugar leads to a change in our brain chemistry too. Sugar dense foods cause a temporary rush of dopamine (a feel-good hormone), followed by a sugar crash; leading to further cravings. The adrenal glands work overtime; pumping stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline into the body at an alarming rate.  Mental health deteriorates; another sugar fix is needed, self-loathing sets in, and the cycle continues.

Signs, Symptoms, and Stages Of Food Addiction

Food addiction can be difficult to recognise, but it’s a chronic and progressive illness that can prove fatal if left untreated. Some symptoms to look out for include:

Obsession about eating food, compulsion to obtain food, denial about an issue with food. Increased tolerance to food, leading to less satisfaction.  Withdrawal in the absence of the food, and low self-esteem.

Specific signs of food addiction to note are:

  • Going out of your way to obtain certain foods
  • Eating beyond hunger
  • Eating in secret or isolation
  • Difficulty functioning at work
  • Spending significant amounts of money on food
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating on small tasks
  • Irritability
  • Headaches
  • Depression
  • Self-harm
  • Thoughts of suicide

The Stages Of Food Addiction

The early stages of food addiction begin with a fascination with food.  Time is taken to plan and prepare food throughout the day. Life becomes about the next opportunity to eat. There is a fear of being found out so behaviours such as hiding food wrappers or eating in secret are common. Weight issues may or may not be present.

In the intermediate stage, a lack of control grows, yet the affected person doesn’t recognise a problem. Life becomes more difficult as attempts are made to eat more without being noticed. Weight may start to increase. Addictions to unhealthy foods can cause secondary problems such as brain fog and decreased energy.

The final stage is characterised by a complete loss of control. Weight gain becomes rapid. Self-care is neglected as food becomes the main focus.  Secondary health problems worsen in addition to mental ill-health such as depression and suicidal thoughts.

The Vicious Cycle of Poor Health

Most people are aware of the negative impact unhealthy diets have on our physical body. But there are studies which also suggest a strong link between food addiction and poor mental health, specifically depression and anxiety disorders.

A recent study by Harvard Health Publishing revealed people who follow a traditional Japanese or Mediterranean diet of fruit, vegetables, pulses and grains had a 25-35% lower risk of developing depression. Thought to be because these diets are less processed and have far lower levels of trans fats and sugars.

It’s important to note however the negative cycle may not begin with food.  Often the vicious cycle of unhealthy food, food addiction and poor health interconnect in complex ways. The issue may begin with a mental health difficulty; trauma or grief for example may propel a person to use food as a source of comfort. The initial comfort sadly over time gives way to negative feelings like shame and guilt; perpetuating the unhealthy cycle.

Long Lasting Health

The relationship between food and health is interconnected in complex ways.  Food is a source of comfort and reward as well as sustenance. The choices we make are dictated by many factors, especially our mental health. There can be a vicious cycle at play between health and food.  The only way to defeat the cycle is to get to the root cause of the problem.

That’s why I mentor people with a holistic approach to their health. I tackle the food side of the issue first with an integral support system in place to address mental health at the same time. The two phases of healing go hand in hand. My approach means the addictive foods are removed from the negative cycle whilst a simple, robust support system strengthens mental wellness.  To ensure a healthy way of living that lasts