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Allergies and depression. Heart attacks and panic attacks. The links between physical and mental conditions are more intimate, more complicated and more powerful than once imagined. Here’s how to protect yourself holistically.

Laura Tedesco

The phrase “mind-body connection” can feel ambiguous, even woo-woo, something to be reconciled during yoga class. But emerging science is now bearing out physiological connections between many seemingly unrelated mental and bodily issues – many seemingly unrelated on the surface. And it can go both ways: mental-health issues can lead to physical ones and vice versa.

This new research is a revelation because, until the past few years, the interplay between mental and physical was often chalked up to a behavioural domino effect (e.g. you binge-eat because you’re depressed, then the extra weight ups your diabetes risk). Now experts realise it’s governed by a far more complex mix of factors. Inflammation, the immune system’s natural response to threats, is a biggie: if this healing process fails to shut off after a problem has been neutralised, immune cells continue to attack healthy ones. That can lead to serious health conditions and an overactive nervous system, where mind and body ping-pong distress signals to each other.

The research is even more relevant given that roughly one in three South Africans suffers from a mental disorder and chronic conditions, like heart disease, are on the rise. The only way to get – and keep – people well is to treat the mind and body as two parts of a whole, says Dr Erika Saunders, a professor and chair of psychiatry at Pennsylvania State University in the US. “That’s why more mental-health providers are now in primary-care offices,” she says. The encouraging outcomes so far: patients with mental illness who access integrated care are more likely to receive preventive services, like cholesterol testing, and be counselled about exercise and nutrition. If this assimilation hasn’t reached your local practitioner’s office yet, the best way to keep your whole self healthy is to understand hidden mind-body links, so you can prevent one illness from spurring others.

Heart disease and...

PANIC DISORDER

Mind to body

During a panic attack, your body experiences surges in adrenaline, cortisol and immune system activity. That’s a combustible mix for the heart. If that arousal happens too often (people with the worst forms of the disorder can have attacks several times a day), it can cause the heart to beat erratically, increasing heart attack risk. Indeed, one study showed that people with panic disorder face a 47 percent higher risk for heart disease.

Protect yourself: Take up yoga. In another study, people with panic disorder who practised twice a week for two months showed significant decreases in anxiety and panic, possibly because their time on the mat helped dial down an overactive stress system, which would theoretically then protect the heart from getting into bad territory. Also, know that heart attacks and panic attacks share symptoms (chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath), so work with your doctor to come up with a list of signs that warrant a trip to the emergency room. If you’re in doubt or the attack occurred during physical exertion, always go to the ER.

DEPRESSION

Mind to body

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May 2019

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