Can the Body Treat the Mind?

Conventionally, most people understand the concept of how our bodies operate. The brain, as the central processor, conjures up the command for an action, then, via the nervous system, sends the signal to the body part that needs moving or to the gland that will produce the hormones to signal the response that is needed.

And, albeit a simple explanation, this is an extremely complicated process that occurs thousands of times per day, while, most of the time, without you even thinking about it.

Well, in the therapy world, there is a break from this concept.  Somehow we must use our minds to fix our minds.  There are lots of therapeutic well-known techniques focused on these concepts: cognitive challenging, and cognitive distortion; is built on this foundation.  If you have a mild mental health issue, your symptoms are completely treatable in these ways.  However, once you enter the more severe mental health realm like in trauma related disorders, using the mind to treat the mind becomes extremely difficult.  Treating the body is essential to treating mental health issues.

Body<->Mind Knowledge Nuggets:   

Vitamins:

One of the most overlooked and least understood concepts in the health space, currently, is the importance of meeting dietary needs of crucial vitamins.  

The common mantra is: “You are what you eat.”  

Yet, that is not entirely true. Technically, you are what you digest, absorb, and utilize or assimilate.

Our absorption of macro and micronutrients depends heavily on the overall quality and source, but also on how healthy our digestive systems are operating.  

Usually, people with depression, anxiety, or other mental histories notoriously have subjective digestive symptoms or issues, or they have lab tests run to show gut dysfunction or dysbiosis with their microbiome.

With impaired digestion comes impaired absorption. The problem presents itself when people are unable to fully digest and absorb the full nutrient potential of the food they are eating.  

If they are already eating low quality food, obviously this will present itself more quickly. Yet, even when taking the time to search for and purchase higher quality meals, some people still lack adequate levels of nutrients and vitamins in their diets.

While there are lab tests that can be run to assess micronutrient and vitamin deficiencies, people can also simply supplement with a few key nutrients to start and assess how they feel after a few days or weeks while trying to cover the most common deficiencies.

Some of these deficiencies include:

  • B Vitamins (Mainly B-6 and B-12)

  • Serotonin (Primarily in the form of 5 -HTP)

  • Magnesium (Necessary for >300 enzymatic processes in the body, yet most people are deficient. Super helpful for sleep with a mild calming effect as well.)

  • Vitamin D

Gut Health

Also known as “the second brain”, the gut is a commonly misunderstood area of mental health that is not targeted by conventional medicine as much as it should be.   

Given the two way street that connects the brain and the gut, (also known as the Vagus nerve via the Autonomic nervous system), mental stress and gut stress walk hand in hand throughout the day.  

Over 90% of the vagus nerve signaling is from the gut to the brain, (also known as afferent signaling).

This is why some people have to rush to the restroom when nervous or vomit prior to going on stage. This is a direct result of the mind controlling the gut.

But what people sometimes overlook is how much influence the gut has over the mind.

This is why it is so important to eat and manage lifestyle factors that aid in decreasing intestinal inflammation as well as focus on balancing the microbiome.

For most people, this means:

  • Eating more whole foods

  • Avoiding most wheat, dairy, or processed foods for a few weeks

  • Taking a probiotic or eating enough prebiotic containing foods

  • Managing physical stressors (more on this below)

  • Managing mental stressors: 

    Stress management techniques consist of relaxation, meditation, hot baths, tea, time management including not over-scheduling, exercise, prayer, fun, trauma treatment, and being aware of your biological neuro-sensory system.  

    Trauma Treatment 

    A trauma history has a profound effect on mental health issues because the nervous system is "stuck" on high alert to protect you. Your body does not know that the threat has ended when the trauma ended.  

    Common trauma symptoms: A heightened startle response, anxiety, nightmares, problems sleeping, problems relaxing, intrusive thoughts or images about the trauma or feeling emotions associated with the traumatic event.  

    Neurosensory System 

    These are biological traits called neuroconception that occur in milliseconds, without us consciously knowing.  These traits are associated with our responses to stress and the intensity that we experience stress.  Some individuals have a heightened threat sensitivity or a low reward sensitivity.  

    There are biological components, environmental factors, and how we cope with the two that make our nervous systems unique and thus more reactive to stress.  Biological traits and environmental factors can produce maladaptive coping which increases stress in the body and thus affects our gut health. 

    Which came first: the chicken or the egg?  I don't know, but treating it through the body is an essential part of treating your mental health. 

  • Focusing on maximizing sleep quality through environment and bedtime routine

This one is essential for building a solid mental health foundation.  Sleep is highly underrated and may be the most important thing to treat.  

Exercise

In regard to feeling the improvements and benefits of exercise on mental health… if you know, you KNOW!

The scientific evidence continues to stack up for the benefits of exercise on mood and well-being.

While we could use several hundred words to describe these benefits, there is no reason to reinvent the wheel as this video below does an excellent job of aggregating and explaining the benefits and evidence: 

https://www.foundmyfitness.com/episodes/exercise-depression

The one nugget of advice we will add is that it is important to keep in mind that exercise is indeed a stressor.

While stressors are meant to push the body and mind beyond its norm, they both will need time and proper foundational healing environments to recover and bounce back stronger.  Without those, exercise may stack on more stress and increase cortisol (along with other stress hormones) thus exacerbating symptoms.

Make sure to focus on your recovery from exercise (i.e. good nutrition, sleep, and adequate time between hard workouts) as much as you are focusing on the actual exercise itself.

This point is essential for all you overachievers who just keep adding more and more healthy, yet stressful, activities to your plates and think more is better; but it is not!!!

Sleep

Recovery is the last piece of this mental health loop that most people often fail to close.

There is also an important distinction between quality sleep and simply being “unconscious” for the night.

Drinking too much alcohol and taking sleeping medication can make us feel as though we fall asleep faster, but both impede quality sleep and adequate sleep cycles throughout the night, thus delaying or blocking adequate recovery.

Of all the healthy habits, that one can partake in, focusing on sleep is by far the most important.

You can take the most expensive and high quality vitamins, become a professional marathoner, and have the gut health of an indigenous African tribesman, but if you are not sleeping adequately, you will never reap the benefits of these actions.

Sleep is that important.

If you find that you are having trouble falling asleep, or that you are waking up in the middle of the night and are not able to fall back asleep, you may want to look into having a diurnal salivary hormone test performed with a functional medicine doctor to assess your HPA axis, and adrenal health.

If you have removed that as a problem, try incorporating the habits below to see if you can start influencing your sleep quality in a better direction:

  • Shut down phones, tablets, and TV by 8 pm at night to remove blue light stimulation

  • Take a warm bath with Epsom salt to help wind down

  • If eating a ketogenic diet, try adding some carbs to your evening meal to influence parasympathetic activation

  • Start measuring HRV readings to assess actual sleep quality and nervous system recovery

  • Wearing blue light blocking glasses (if looking at screens) is a must in the evening

  • Read a book or journal prior to bed as opposed to watching TV

  • EMDR and IMTT (Trauma Processes)

    If you are having problems sleeping and you have a trauma history, therapy can resolve your body's trauma response.  Your past trauma can contribute to your inability to relax at night. 

    EMDR and IMTT can have powerful effects on reminding the brain that the trauma is over and it's okay to relax, and let your guard down so you can sleep. 

Meditation 

Meditation has many benefits on the body.  There are guided meditations, mindfulness meditations, and breathing meditations just to name a few.

  • Relaxation- it trains the brain and body to relax.  

  • Mindfulness redirects your attention to the present moment so that you can train your brain to stop “growing” anxious and depressive thoughts/feelings.  

  • Mindfulness meditations train the body through sitting with thoughts and feelings so that one can "detach" from these thoughts and feelings. (When first learning mindfulness sitting with anxious or obsessive thoughts may be rumination or obsessing.  This practice takes time to learn.)

  • Guided meditations can prep your body for bed and to relax.  

Habits

Habits (good or bad) have an enormous impact on our mental health.  We are the sum total of our daily habits.  Which internal and external habits are driving you?

Compulsive Habits=Anxiety

I love educating people about compulsive behaviors.  These are any internal or external habits that we do on repeat to relieve anxiety but when done compulsively it relieves and creates more anxiety.   The brain will go to that compulsive behavior to cope with anxiety but then if not done, it creates more anxiety.  

Some compulsive behaviors:

Measuring food, counting calories, reassurance seeking, confessing, checking, memory checking, scenario bending, sensation checking, cleaning, avoidance, going to the doctor, overworking, researching (this is the one I see the most). 

Basically, if you want to lower your anxiety, abstain from compulsive behaviors and you will have less anxiety.  Anxiety is the lock and compulsive behavior is the key.  The beauty is that once you stop the compulsive behavior, the anxiety lessons.  It's like scratching an itch.  Once you scratch, it itches more.  So STOPPING is essential.  

Healthy Habits=Increase in Overall Wellbeing

  • Yoga

  • Meditation

  • Managing Stress

  • Healthy Eating

So basically when treating your mind, please remember:  your head is attached to your body and therefore vitamins, gut health, exercise, sleep, meditation, and healthy habits have a powerful affect on your state of mind.  

And sometimes figuring it all out is overwhelming.  In that case,  HPHI.life provides expert functional medicine guidance and KD Holmes, LPC and Associates provide expert therapeutic support including trauma processing.  You can always use both of us to get the most comprehensive support.  

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