New research shows that living at higher altitudes is linked to a higher risk for depression and suicide. While researchers continue to look into the reasons why, a variety of factors clearly come into play. Living at higher altitudes has unique effects on the brain, as do the social and psychological aspects of life in the high country. Being aware of functional medicine preventive strategies can help mitigate these factors.
Suicide rates are highest in the US mountain areas — in particular Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Wyoming is at the top of the list with twice the national suicide average, and the other states on this list consistently score in the top ten nationwide.
Living in resort towns: Sadness and desperation?
Studies show neurological and metabolic factors of high-altitude living can raise the risk of suicidal depression, however experts say social, economic and cultural factors also play a role.
Mountain communities are transient. Life in mountain resort towns revolve around ski season and summer tourist season, separated by two off-seasons locals call “mud season.”
Mud season means everything is buried either in spring snowmelt or autumn rain, tourists disappear, locals have little to no income, and a sense of displacement, isolation, depression, and uncertainty increases. Gritting through this tough time twice a year, every year can contribute to high levels of stress and depression.
Social isolation. Remote mountain communities foster isolation. They are spread far apart and transient in nature, making it hard to develop healthy social bonds necessary for mental health and stability.
Financial struggle and uncertainty. Resort towns seem like idyllic settings of enjoyment, freedom, and natural beauty. However, for many residents life consists of working two to four jobs during tourist season, enduring mud-seasons of unemployment, unaffordable and unstable housing, and constant financial stress. This puts enormous stress on individuals, families, and relationships.
Party culture and substance abuse. Resort towns are notorious for alcohol and drugs abuse. According to Mental Health America, substance abuse is likely a factor in half of all suicides; suicide rates among those with alcohol problems are three to four times the national average.
Living at high altitude may increase suicide risk
A recent Harvard study showed a link between life at higher altitudes and increased risk of depression and suicide.
Adjusted for population distribution, suicide rates are almost four times higher at high altitude than at low altitude.
It’s believed chronic hypobaric hypoxia, or low blood oxygen, may alter serotonin and dopamine activity in the brain and negatively influence energy in cells and tissues.
Lowered serotonin production. Studies show high altitude reduces serotonin, which is associated with mood and anxiety disorders. The higher you go in altitude, the higher your risk for suicide.
In fact, Salt Lake City residents have a 30 to 40 percent higher risk of suicide based on the city’s altitude compared to those at sea level. The nearby ski towns of Alta and Snowbird have a suicide rate two times that of the national average.
Raised dopamine production. Altitude also increases the production of dopamine, the brain chemical associated with pleasure-seeking and risk-taking, which can predispose the depressed person to taking action on suicide.
This is compounded by the attraction high altitude living has for outdoorsy risk-takers. They may already have higher dopamine levels that make them prone to the impulsivity associated with suicide.
Support mental health with dietary and lifestyle measures
While the altitude-suicide connection needs more research, it’s clear living at high altitudes presents challenges to mental health. If you live at a high-altitude, be aware of the factors that raise your risk for depression and suicide.
Symptoms of low serotonin:
- Loss of pleasure in hobbies and interests
- Feelings of inner rage and anger
- Feelings of depression
- Difficulty finding joy from life pleasures
- Depression when it is cloudy or when there is lack of sunlight
- Loss of enthusiasm for favorite activities
- Not enjoying favorite foods
- Not enjoying friendships and relationships
- Unable to fall into deep restful sleep
Symptoms of high dopamine:
- Heightened cognitive acuity
- High libido
- Lack of self-control
Support brain health with anti-inflammatory diet
Research reveals a strong link between brain inflammation and depressive disorders. Dampen inflammation with a diet free of common allergens and reactive foods.
Symptoms of blood sugar instability. Blood sugar imbalances can be at the root of many mood issues.
Symptoms of low blood sugar include:
- Increased energy after meals
- Craving for sweets between meals
- Irritability if meals are missed
- Dependency on coffee and sugar for energy
- Becoming light headed if meals are missed
- Eating to relieve fatigue
- Feeling shaky, jittery, or tremulous
- Feeling agitated and nervous
- Poor memory, forgetfulness
- Blurred vision
Symptoms of high blood sugar include:
- Fatigue and drowsiness after meals
- Intense cravings for sweets after meals
- Constant hunger
- General fatigue
- Waist girth equal to or larger than hip girth
- Craving for sweets not relieved by eating them
- Frequent urination
- Increased appetite and thirst
- Difficulty losing weight
- Trouble falling asleep
Support your stress response with adrenal adaptogens and phosphatidylserine.
- Panax ginseng
- Holy basil leaf extract
- Boerhaavia (Punarnava)
- Pantethine (B5) and B vitamins
- Phosphatidylserine liposomal cream that delivers 2000mg per day
Moderate your caffeine intake. Caffeine can stress your adrenals, making it harder to cope with high stress.
Support serotonin levels with 5HTP (a serotonin precursor) or L-tryptophan.
Support brain bioenergetics with creatine.
Use moderate exercise to manage stress levels and support brain health.
Stress management practices such as meditation, chi gong, and yoga help to moderate stress and relieve depression.
Actively build community and social connections by joining a volunteer group, drama club, book club, or other organization.
Know the signs of increased social isolation in yourself and loved ones.
If you have substance abuse issues, please contact my office for a referral for assistance.
Check for deficiencies in vitamin D, B2, and iron, all of which can affect mood.
High altitude life has joys and benefits and doesn’t have to be a recipe for depression. To learn more about how you can support your well-being while living at altitude, please contact my office.
For emergency help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
How to learn if you have Hashimoto’s low thyroid
Many patients are not diagnosed with hypothyroidism or Hashimoto’s until after several years and going through several doctors. It is a demoralizing journey richly illustrated in my book The Truth About Low Thyroid: Stories of Hope and Healing for Those Suffering With Hashimoto’s Low Thyroid Disease, through real-life stories from patients in my practice. Managing Hashimoto’s goes far beyond using thyroid medication as you must work to stop the immune system from attacking the thyroid. For more information on identifying and managing Hashimoto’s low thyroid, contact my office.
About Dr. Josh Redd, Chiropractic Physician — Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, and New Mexico functional medicine
Dr. Joshua J. Redd, DC, MS, DABFM, DAAIM, author of The Truth About Low Thyroid: Stories of Hope and Healing for Those Suffering With Hashimoto’s Low Thyroid Disease, is a chiropractic physician and the founder of RedRiver Health and Wellness Center with practices in Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. He sees patients from around the world who suffer from challenging thyroid disorders, Hashimoto’s disease, and other autoimmune conditions. In addition to his chiropractic degree, Dr. Redd has a BS in Health and Wellness, a BS in Anatomy, and a MS in Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine. He speaks across the nation, teaching physicians about functional blood chemistry, low thyroid, Hashimoto’s, and autoimmunity. You can join his Facebook page here.