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How your current mental health may predict your future health problems

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Treating the mind and body as seperate entities ignores the very real mind-body connection.

One of the most surprising things I learned during my first struggle with postpartum depression is that exercise is a front-line treatment for depression, recommended as strenuously (if not more so) than antidepressants.

I didn’t take that advice as seriously as I should have. To be honest, the idea of adding one more unpleasant task into days that seemed composed of nothing but them was overwhelming. But I also had a sneaking suspicion that my doctor was just telling me exercise was vital for mental health because I’d gained too much weight during my pregnancy. After a few half-hearted attempts at running, I wrote off “medicinal exercise” as a new way that doctors were trying to trick patients into losing weight.

It was only a few years later that I was diagnosed with GERD after experiencing persistent, unremittent reflux. I was baffled by the diagnosis but my doctor attributed it to age, weight, and too much chocolate. At 24, I wasn’t quite prepared for my health to decline yet, but the chocolate issue was legit. So I took my medicine, tried and failed to eat less chocolate, and adjusted to my new normal of life with GERD.

According to Ozy, chocolate might not have the been the culprit at all. A research team at the University of Basel in Switzerland, headed by Gunther Meinlschmidt, has been investigating the link between mental and physical illnesses, focusing particularly on the sequence in which illnesses emerge in patients.

Meinlschmidt’s team ran the data through statistical software to search for trends in the timing of the onset and co-occurrence of various mental and physical illnesses. In some cases, mental disorders predicted physical disease. On average, teens who had depression, bipolar disorder and other mood disorders were more likely to suffer from arthritis and digestive disorders later, and those with anxiety disorders were more likely to develop skin diseases later. Substance abuse tended to precede seasonal allergies. But physical diseases also predicted mental disorders. Having a heart disease was followed by a heightened risk of suffering from anxiety disorders. The researchers saw the same association between epilepsy and eating disorders.

It’s true that correlation doesn’t equal causation, but the trends that emerged are definitely worth investigating. Personally, it wasn’t until I began to take exercise seriously that I experienced measurable, sustained relief from both depression and GERD. I only have to take an occasional Tums these days, and regular dates with the punching bag keep both my mood and my weight stable.

Sure, the GERD might have had more to do with my weight than my depression, but it’s more likely that it’s all connected … kind of like our minds and our bodies. Certainly there’s less of an intuitive link between epilepsy and subsequent eating disorders, yet that was one of the strongest trends that emerged from the Swiss study.

If nothing else, the study joins a mounting pile of evidence that the medical community should re-think treating the mind and body as separate entities. Psychiatrists and general health practitioners should compare notes and work together to keep their patients healthy, and patients (like me!) should take more seriously medical advice to keep their minds healthy by keeping their bodies healthy (and vice versa). The mind-body connection is real, and respecting it could change lives … and maybe even save some.

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