<p>By Tania Hannan</p> <p>What if the most effective medicine were found not at the pharmacy, but in your own mind? Given the growing research on the mind-body connection, this idea isn’t that farfetched. Find out how your mental and physical health interact, and what you can do to feel better, both above and below the shoulders. </p> <p> <p><i>Writer and editor Tania Hannan has been covering health for nearly a decade. A native New Englander, she recently relocated to Durham, North Carolina. </i></p> <p> <p></p></p></p>

Exercise—whether walking, yoga, swimming, or tennis—can lower stress levels and protect against depression.

A strong body of research shows that regular exercise can benefit mental health; Duke University scientists, for instance, have found that exercise relieves depression as well as medication for some people and can help prevent relapses. And you don’t have to run marathons, either. Pick an activity you enjoy and schedule it the way you would a meeting or dinner; start with 30 minutes three times a week and work up from there.

Staying socially connected can help keep blood pressure levels low, prevent colds, and even protect against Alzheimer's disease.

We're social beings, and staying connected to others is critical for good health. Social isolation, in fact, has been linked to high blood pressure, reduced immunity, and higher rates of Alzheimer's disease. So stay in touch--or get back in touch--with the family or friends who make you feel good. And push through any resistance to reaching out and forming new connections--it's worth it!

Depression and anger are, paradoxically, associated with better health and a longer life.

Numerous studies have shown that depression can contribute to serious illness; one large European study published in November 2009 found that depression harms our health as much as smoking does. And chronic hostility has long been linked to heart disease. If you're struggling with your emotions, take it seriously and seek out treatment; your body will thank you.

Putting yourself first is a tried-and-true path to lower stress and greater happiness.

In fact, helping others has been shown to alter brain chemistry, reducing stress and improving happiness. And being altruistic doesn't have to mean devoting your whole life to service; simply volunteering to help a friend or neighbor can elicit the feel-good response.

Vitamin C has mood-boosting effects.

While vitamin C is a great multi-tasker--supporting the immune system and neutralizing harmful free radicals--it's not known to have an effect on mood. The B vitamins, on the other hand, are believed to affect mental health. Foods such as whole grains, dairy products, eggs, and leafy grains provide the Bs, but many health experts also recommend taking a multivitamin or B-complex supplement.

Practicing yoga is the most effective mind-body activity for reducing stress.

Yoga can be a very helpful activity for stress reduction, but it's not your only option. Meditation, deep breathing exercises, hypnosis, and qi gong, for instance, all have de-stressing potential. The key is to find what works for you and practice it regularly.

We would all be healthier and happier if we could eliminate stress and tension from our lives.

Eliminating stress altogether is impossible, and not even desirable; stress often motivates important achievements and accompanies happy life events. Chronic, unremitting stress is what's harmful to our health, so incorporating strategies to prevent stress from getting the upper hand can boost both mental and physical well-being. Try exercise, meditation, yoga, or offloading your stresses into a journal.

Twenty percent of all illnesses are stress-related.

Health experts agree that stress contributes to a vast number of illnesses including heart disease, depression, and HIV/AIDS. In 2004, Newsweek magazine reported that between 60 and 90 percent of doctor visits involved stress-related complaints. Clearly, getting a handle on your stress level can have a positive ripple effect on your health.

Chronic insomnia may increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Recent research shows that people with insomnia who sleep five or fewer hours nightly are at risk for developing type 2 diabetes. If you're having trouble sleeping, talk to a health care professional and work on "sleep hygeine" habits, such as following a regular bedtime and wake time, creating a wind-down routine, and avoiding caffeine.

The herbal remedy St. John's wort has been shown to help relieve panic attacks.

St. John's wort has been shown in studies to relieve mild to moderate symptoms of depression. If you're interested in trying St. John's wort, be sure you're also working with a mental health professional.

Caffeine is nature's most reliable energy and mood booster.

Although caffeine is a naturally occurring substance, present in both coffee beans and tea leaves, it's not necessarily healthy. While it can provide a boost in a pinch, large amounts can lead to energy-sapping insomnia and anxiety, not to mention digestive problems and acid reflux. For people who are sensitive to caffeine, even small amounts can cause health problems.

Meditating may help fend off the flu.

In one University of Wisconsin study, people who meditated for eight weeks produced more antibodies to a flu vaccine than those who didn't meditate. Stress can impair the immune system, making us more susceptible to infections. By reducing stress, meditation can strengthen our resistance.

Too many daily household chores or routines can be detrimental to children's health and family dynamics.

Research shows that positive family routines, such as nightly dinners and holiday rituals, are associated with better health in children and lead to stronger relationships for the whole family.

Negative personal relationships have been shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Close relationships that are fraught with hostility can indeed contribute to heart-disease risk factors. Interestingly, having conflicting feelings about a person may be worse than having outright negative feelings, at least when it comes to blood pressure. As much as possible, focus your time and energy on the positive relationships in your life.

Headaches are the body's main manifestation of stress.

Though many people do get tension-related headaches, the body can manifest stress in many different ways, including stomach upset, back pain, muscle tension, and weight gain. If you have any of these symptoms, however, don't assume it's "only stress." See a physician for an evaluation.

Mood-boosting omega-3 fatty acids are found in foods including soft cheeses and whole grains.

Omega-3s are indeed believed to influence mood, but don't go looking for them in cheese or grains. Cold-water fatty fish such as wild salmon and tuna as well as walnuts and flaxseed are great sources of omega-3s; experts recommend getting several servings a week.

Over time, high stress levels can reduce body fat because the brain burns calories when you worry.

Chronic stress can actually make you gain weight, particularly around your middle. When the stress hormone cortisol circulates at high levels, it causes fat to be stored deep in the abdomen; this type of weight gain is considered particularly unhealthy, as it's linked to metabolic diseases and heart disease.

Oxytocin is one of the body's main "fight or flight" hormones.

Oxytocin is actually what's known as an intimacy hormone, released after childbirth, during sex, when hugging a friend, and even while stroking a beloved pet. Oxytocin helps people bond, promotes sleep, and lowers blood pressure.

Holding onto grudges can affect you on a physical level.

Researchers have found that when your mind ruminates about a grudge, your body interprets it as acute stress: your muscles tense, your blood pressure surges, and you sweat. Forgiveness can erase those effects and improve health, however. Releasing resentments has been shown to improve blood pressure and heart rate, and relieve back pain.

Once you develop chronic insonmia, you have it for life.

Research has shown that lifestyle changes and relaxation therapies can ease sleep woes. One study showed that 75 percent of long-term insomniacs who were trained in relaxation, meditation, and lifestyle-changing habits fell asleep within 20 minutes.
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