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Depression: Major Depression & Unipolar Varieties
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Lifestyle Factors and Environmental Causes of Major Depression

Rashmi Nemade, Ph.D., Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D., and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Lifestyle Factors

Physical health is an important foundation of mental health. People who are not physically healthy are at an increased risk for developing mental illnesses such as depression. People who engage in unhealthy lifestyle practices also have a more difficult time overcoming depressive episodes than healthier people, as their unhealthy lifestyle practices tend to work against many treatment effects. Negative lifestyle factors that can contribute to a depressive episode or drag one out include:

  • Abusing drugs and alcohol
  • Overwork
  • Poor diet, including excess caffeine or sugar
  • Lack of exercise
  • Poor sleep
  • Lack of leisure time as well as fun and recreational activities

Additional Factors

Environmental Causes

Synthetic chemicals, in the form of food additives and preservatives, pesticides, hormones and drugs, and industrial byproducts, are bombarding our bodies at an unprecedented rate. In this article, we use the term "environmental causes" to describe environmental contributions to depression which are present in our environment in the form of air, water and food pollution. Other non-chemical sources of environmental stress include noise pollution, electrical pollution natural disasters, and other catastrophic environmental events. Although some authors consider events like childhood abuse, prolonged stress at home or work, coping with the loss of a loved one, or traumatic events as environmental, we classify them as social and relational causes of depression.

Although the DSM recognizes the problem of environmental pollutants in depression (for example, see Substance Abuse under Formal DSM Diagnoses Section), studies are underway to clarify the exact relationship between environmental factors and depression. It is well known that air and water pollution can have physiological consequences such as cancer and birth defects. Now, some people believe that the pollutants in our environment are also influencing our mental health. For example, "sick building syndrome" is a condition caused by exposure to various noxious agents in a "sick building," usually an office or other building that houses many people working in close proximity to one another. Individuals with sick building syndrome tend to become very anxious and irritable; they may hyperventilate and develop tetany (muscle twitches and cramps) and/or severe breathlessness.

Recently, a small body of research suggests that electrical pollution may be linked to mood disorders. Electrical pollution is caused by the radio waves generated by the electrical equipment we use in our modern world. Electrical pollution is invisible, silent, odorless, and tasteless. Some United States military researchers have found that particular radio wavelengths can promote depression and rage. Larger, more controlled studies are necessary to determine the exact relationship between mood and radio waves.

Natural disasters such as destructive hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes, as well as man-made catastrophic and traumatic events such as September 11, 2001 can contribute to an already vulnerable person's susceptibility to depression. In addition, a person with very little innate propensity to become depressed can also develop symptoms after they encounter a significant and traumatic environmental trigger such as the annihilation of their home by a hurricane.

Our level of exposure to some of these environmental factors is partially under our control. For example, if water quality is bad in your area, you may be able to use an inexpensive water filter. Similarly, if you believe that your health is being affected by chemical or electrical sensitivity, you may be able to take steps to avoid these substances.