Your brain, mind and body are intimately connected and influence well-being

How to Hack Your Mind-Body Connection

Everyone knows the brain talks to the body, whether that means telling our mouth to smile or our lungs to breathe. But does the body talk back? For centuries, it was believed that the brain (and nervous system) was the body's command center, but recent studies indicate that it's less of a "dictator" and more of a "partner" to the rest of you: your cells, tissues and organ systems.

Indeed, both the "top-down" and "bottom-up" communication between mind and body greatly impact our physical health and mental well-being. Without any conscious effort on our part, our bodies fight off immune challenges, produce energy to keep us going, regulate our sleep/wake cycle, process, store and retrieve complex information, digest and take up nutrients from the foods we eat; in turn, those nutrients become part of our cells and tissues (yes, we are what we eat).

Any disruption to that balance and we start to feel not so great. On the flip side, understanding the symbiotic relationship between the brain and body is like getting a blueprint to optimal health; it's biohacking: advanced level. And if given the opportunity, who wouldn't want the ability to strengthen the immune system, reduce stress, relieve anxiety, promote emotional well-being and much beyond?

Here's the lowdown on the mind-body connection—plus eight hacks on how to enhance it so that your brain, heart and the rest of you can work together in harmony.

What is the mind-body connection?

The mind-body connection refers to a harmonious relationship between our brains, bodies and our behavior. Research and ancient wisdom suggest that whole-body wellness depends not only on physical health but also on the quality of mental and emotional health. Being healthy, after all, is a multidimensional effort where body parts and organs intricately connected through a dense network of nerves that carry electrical signals work together to effect biological processes and mental health.

In a recent statement, the American Heart Association explained that the focus for healthcare providers should extend beyond a patient's present health concern and also look at how psychological and emotional factors impact cardiovascular health. The organization believes that a healthy mental state translates into a healthy heart and even reduces the risk for heart disease.

This stance makes sense. Our bodies are constantly working to keep us in a healthy balance. Our thoughts, emotions and behavioral patterns enhance or disrupt that balance. If you've ever experienced not succumbing to the clammy clutches of a cold by sheer will, then you've experienced how your mental state can sway how your immune system responds to challenges.

How does the mind body-connection work?

There are more than seven trillion nerves on the human body, relaying messages between your tissues, organs and different brain regions. This dense network has another name: the nervous system, and exists in two parts:

  1. Central nervous system:

    Includes the brain and spinal cord. Since the brain receives and processes the information from the physical body (and the world around you) it's in many ways your body's "mission control."
  2. Peripheral nervous system:

    This complex network of nerves branches out from the spinal cord and extends to all body parts.

It's through this network of nerves that the brain and body control the different biological processes that keep us healthy. But how exactly do they influence one another? There are brain regions and biological pathways that directly regulate processes like your stress response, hormone balance, cholesterol levels, protein production, etc., and through the two-way highway of nerves, your mental health can influence your physical health (and vice versa).

8 powerful ways to improve your mind body connection

Now that you understand the profound influence your mind and body have on your health, let's go over how you can increase the harmony between your mental and physical "selves". Here are eight ways to help you hack your mind-body connection.

1. Earthing or grounding

Earthing is a type of mind-body therapy. Walking barefoot along the soft grass or holding on to a tree (yes, we're big tree huggers!) can help ease nervous thoughts and feelings that create turmoil within us—there's something soothing about breathing fresh air as we feel the gentle touch of water on our feet. But why is that? Multi-disciplinary research suggests that nurturing our connection to nature enables us to feel our best because contact with Earth's natural electric charge helps stabilize our physiology at a cellular level, and has been shown to assist with reducing inflammation and chronic pain, improving circulation, metabolic health and much more.

How can nature stabilize us? There's an electrical charge that runs within everything in nature. This electrical current "powers" all life forms—from bacteria (and other microorganisms) to plants and fungi, from the smallest insect to the largest mammal (even rocks and crystals have an electrical current!). And we are no exception—we're biologically designed to conduct electricity, and grounding can help us balance the ebb and flow of that energy; and, in turn, support head-to-toe and in-and-out well-being.

2. Meditation

Meditation is a mindfulness-based practice that intentionally calms the mind by bringing awareness back to the present moment instead of lingering on the past or worrying about the future. Meditation focuses on a single thing, usually the breath, but it can be a specific thought (like a mantra) or a feeling.

In this manner, meditation has been shown to help reduce stress (and confer various other health benefits) by bringing about stillness, peace and clarity to the present moment. In cultivating awareness, we learn to empower ourselves in each present moment, knowing we can take back control of any situation without giving in to the whirlwind of anxious thoughts and negative emotions that are linked to dementia.

In other words, meditation helps us detach ourselves from external situations that are out of our control and manage internal factors through breathwork and mindfulness, helping us stay calm and collected, no matter what life throws our way.

3. Yoga

Yoga is an ancient spiritual practice that originated in India that has been adopted in the Western world thanks to its many long-term benefits for mind, body and spirit. A growing body of research suggests that yoga may help reduce chronic pain, promote endurance, relieve muscle soreness, lower blood pressure, cultivate positive emotions and so much more.

4. Creativity: Dance, art, music & more

Stress, depression and anxiety can rob us of vitality. Sometimes we experience these injuries to our emotional health without being aware of them—we get accustomed to ignoring our emotions and decide we feel "fine." However, anxious emotions and stress don't have to be the villains of your wellness journey. Instead, think of these imbalanced states as messages—your mind and body are telling you that there's something within that you need to address.

Turning your nervous energy into physical expression, be that dancing, coloring, drawing (stick figures are okay!), painting, or working with clay, can be a great way to let out pent-up energy and emotions. Listening to music (or, if you're one of those talented people, playing your favorite instrument) can also foster calming feelings and encourage relaxation by allowing you to unwind and release anxious emotions. Research suggests that art interventions can be terrific mind-body therapies.

5. Qigong

Qigong (chee-gung) is an ancient Eastern mind-body practice that uses different techniques to cultivate qi, the vital life force that circulates within us. Traditional teachings of qigong believe that this vital life-force energy (qi) spreads through and is perceived in everything in the universe. In the western world, we know it as bioelectricity. The practice of qigong focuses on a movement that helps guide qi through the body to address a particular issue at a time, be it in the mind, body or spirit.

What about the gong part? Gong is translated to "effort," which refers to the commitment, patience, time and dedication it takes to be consistent in a daily practice. One of the core beliefs in qigong is that our attention guides our energy. In other words, where our mind goes, our energy follows. Qigong aims to harness life-force energy through intention and mindfulness to detect and correct any imbalances and encourage self-healing, strengthen the immune system to prevent disease, and promote a long and healthy life. For example, qigong practice can be one move to alleviate physical soreness. You would repeat the movement along with deep breathing until you feel the benefits start to kick in. But more research is needed to confirm the benefits on qigong's benefits on physical discomfort.

6. Tai chi

Tai chi is another mind-body practice with east Asian roots that involves a series of slow, gentle movement patterns found in nature. Tai chi combines physical postures, a meditative state of mind and controlled breathing with the teachings and believes of qigong; all tai chi practices include qigong, but not all qigong practices will include tai chi.

In contrast to qigong, which focuses on a single movement to address a particular concern, tai chi is performed with controlled, full-body movements where you flow from one posture to the next, ensuring your body is in constant motion. You can think of tai chi as meditation in motion, connecting the mind and body through mindfulness and physical sensations as the qi or life force flows throughout, encouraging healing and well-being.

7. Understand your biology

In addition to wellness practices that connect the physical "you" to your mental or emotional self, simply being aware of your body is a way to deepen that mind body connection. Knowing what's happening behind the scenes of your biology is important and can help guide you towards key lifestyle changes.

  • Routine bloodwork:

    It sure sounds a lot less exotic than the practice of qigong, but getting routine lab work to keep track of cholesterol levels, thyroid health, vitamin and mineral levels is an excellent way to check on your overall health and wellbeing—and make adjustments if your numbers are headed in the wrong direction. Use this check-in as a chance to take stock of whether your daily habits support health and wellness. Are you eating balanced meals, getting regular exercise, prioritizing uninterrupted sleep and managing stress? All of these habits influence both your physical and mental health.
  • Hormone testing:

    In addition to checking out basic health markers, you also want to go deep when it comes to your hormone balance. Our hormones are chemical messengers that regulate biological processes and influence metabolism, growth, sex drive, digestion, heart rate... pretty much everything we do! Empower yourself to be the best version of yourself by getting yearly female hormone panels or male hormone panels.
  • Heart rate variability (HRV):

    Not to be confused with resting heart rate, which measures how many times your heart beats per minute when you're not active, your heart rate variability provides insight into your body's ability to handle stress throughout your day. Research suggests that a high HRV reflects a better resilience to change. You can monitor your HRV with a smart watch or smartphone app, but it's probably more accurate to let your doctor measure it.
  • Microbiome:

    The microbiome includes the trillions of microorganisms (and their genetic material!) that reside on and inside us. There's an intricate relationship between our eating patterns, microbiota health and our overall well-being. Microbiome lab tests can give you key insights about your neurotransmitter health—because indeed, the gut and mind connection is strong and well-established.

8. Cognitive-behavioral therapy

This type of therapy combines cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy to identify how our thoughts, emotions and behavior are connected and influence our well-being, and strategically replacing old habits with new behaviors that support physical and mental wellness. While many different types of mental health support may be helpful, this particular approach is an excellent way to understand and ultimately "hack" your mental and physical patterns.

Why is the mind-body connection important?

Our brain and body are electromagnetic—our thoughts, emotions, and feelings (and cells) generate energy. That current runs through us, connecting us to ourselves (through the vast network that is our nervous system) and nature. The fast-paced and high demands of our day-to-day make it easy to disconnect and ignore our mind-body connection. When we neglect our well-being, over time, negative emotions and thoughts create energy that accumulates and becomes stagnant—like dry, fallen leaves building up in a drain— affecting our physical health and mental well-being.

The good news is that we can biohack the mind and body, reestablishing that crucial connection. The secret lies within daily practices that focus on mental, emotional and physical well-being. Making our wellness routine a daily practice can help us learn to discard thoughts and behaviors that no longer serve us; we know to prioritize habits (the little things we do daily) that further enhance our brain and body connection, which in turn helps us ease anxiety and stress, improve blood pressure, sleep, reduce chronic pain and much beyond.

When we enhance our mind-body connection, calm our mind (through relaxation techniques) and address what's causing us distress, we develop the potential to become a healthier and better version of ourselves and live long, healthy lives.

Remember: wellness is a journey, not a destination, so be kind and patient with yourself. We're prone to repeating old habits and it takes time to build a new lifestyle.

About the Author: Jessica Monge has a bachelor's degree in biological sciences & neuroscience and a master's degree in comparative studies and related languages from Florida Atlantic University. She worked as a tutor, freelance writer and editor before joining Life Extension, where she is currently a Digital Content Writer.