You don’t need a PhD to realise the links between lifestyle and physical health.
A diet high in processed and/or animal foods, sedentary lifestyle, elevated stress, low social connectivity, inadequate sunlight and fresh air, poor sleep….. it’s the perfect recipe for obesity, cancer, diabetes, atherosclerosis, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension, to name a few.
Less is known about the impact of lifestyle on mental health. Mental health problems are the underestimated scourge of Western society. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, a quarter of adults are diagnosable with a mental illness at any one time. For adolescents, the lifetime prevalence of mental illness is almost 50%. Closer to home, around half of Australian adults will experience mental illness in their lifetime.
Search the literature, and the vast majority of published studies focuses on medication and therapy in “treating” diagnosable disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, depression, schizophrenia, autism, panic disorder, phobias, and Parkinson’s disease. There’s really only a handful of studies focusing on lifestyle factors, which is probably why mainstream mental health has very little focus on holism.
A fundamental problem is the difficulty in applying the scientific method to study mental health problems. The “gold standard” in medicine is the randomised controlled trial (RCT) comparing similar groups of individuals who are being treated in a specific way. All other factors are controlled (i.e. all groups are matched). If you want to look at the impact of sunlight exposure, for example, you would compare groups of people who are exposed to differing amounts of sunlight, while controlling for age, body weight, diet, exercise habits, socioeconomic status, skin tone (melanin levels) etc. Sound tricky? It is. It takes an enormous commitment and a huge investment of time. Not to mention that there’s relatively little money to be made – you just can’t patent lifestyle factors.
There’s a lot to be said for the reductionist scientific method, which I’ll address at another time. However, I will say this: the scientific method is grossly inadequate in establishing the basis of holistic mental health. And it’s happening at a time when the world is sicker than ever. Our sleep deprived, toxic, caffeinated, drugged-up, and clogged-up world.
Mental health is not just the absence of diagnosable disease. In my opinion, it also requires wellbeing, which includes optimum cognitive functioning, clarity of thought, and the experience of joy, security, and fulfillment. When we experience these things, we have our best life and we can experience everything that life has to offer.