Living at high altitudes can raise the risk of suicide
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
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
Symptoms of high blood sugar include:
Fatigue and drowsiness after meals
Intense cravings for sweets after meals
Waist girth equal to or larger than hip girth
Craving for sweets not relieved by eating them
Increased appetite and thirst
Difficulty losing weight
Trouble falling asleep
Support your stress response with adrenal adaptogens and phosphatidylserine.
Holy basil leaf extract
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.
One of the main goals at RedRiver Health and Wellness Center is to work with patients to improve their health, wellbeing, and quality of life. The RedRiver Health and Wellness Center team is passionate about helping ailing patients achieve optimal health, and we truly care about the success of each and every patient.
RedRiver chiropractic physicians are great advocates for prescribing physicians and endocrinologists. In fact, many of our patients see their prescribing physician(s) more frequently while under our care than they would otherwise. Our goal is not to replace our patients’ primary care physicians and specialists, but to complement their care by providing patients with nutrition, diet, lifestyle and educational support and strategies. This way, patients can learn to manage their symptoms more efficiently. We have developed rewarding relationships with many prescribing physicians across the country, and we strive to continue to building relationships with MDs, DOs, NPs, and NMDs. When health professionals can work together for the benefit of the patient’s health, it becomes a win/win situation for the one who matters most—the patient.