Higher rates of depression, suicide, and other mental health conditions have been seen in people living at higher altitudes. It’s not clear why this happens, but experts have a few theories.

Genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and environmental factors can all play a role in the development of depression and related mental health conditions.

But does it matter where you live?

In the last 20 years, experts have found links between those living at higher altitudes and rates of depression. But the reasons behind this link are complicated and tend to bring more questions than answers.

Is it just depression that seems to be impacted? How long do you have to be at a higher altitude to feel effects? Are the effects permanent?

Here’s a closer look at what experts do (and don’t) know about the link between high altitude and depression.

Several studies suggest a link between high elevation and increased risk of depression:

  • Elevation as a risk factor: Older research from 2010 suggests elevation is a significant risk factor for major depressive disorder (MDD).
  • Moving from low to high elevation: According to a larger study in 2019, moving from low altitude to high altitude is linked to increased symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • Living at higher altitudes: A 2022 analysis reports that people in higher altitudes (1,500 meters above sea level) experience biological, inflammatory, and structural brain changes that may increase the risk of experiencing depression symptoms.

Finally, countries at higher altitudes often have more cases of seasonal depression. But seasonal depression is more strongly connected to regions that have very dark winters, some of which happen to be at higher altitudes. In these areas, depression symptoms tend to subside as the days get longer.

Still, there are a variety of factors that contribute to someone developing depression. While research suggests an increased risk of depression for people living at higher altitudes, it doesn’t mean you’ll definitely develop depression if you live, travel, or plan to move to a higher-elevation region.

There are a few theories on why people at higher altitudes may have an increased risk of depression.

Hypobaric hypoxia

Hypoxia occurs when you don’t have enough oxygen in your body’s tissues. Hypobaric hypoxia refers to low blood oxygen due to altitude.

As elevations rise it becomes harder to get the oxygen your body needs. This can result in both physical and psychological symptoms.

According to a 2018 review of research, hypobaric hypoxia can affect the way your body synthesizes and metabolizes serotonin and other neurotransmitters, as well as brain bioenergetics. Both of these are thought to play a role in depression.

Serotonin and other neurotransmitters

Some researchers believe that hypoxia could reduce the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter linked with mood and mental health conditions.

Serotonin relies on oxygen, so if oxygen levels are affected, it could result in lower levels of serotonin.

The 2018 research review also notes that hypoxia can affect other neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine.

Serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are some of the major neurotransmitters in treatments for mental health conditions.

Brain bioenergetics

You can think of brain bioenergetics as your brain’s energy metabolism. When this is altered or impaired, it’s called mitochondrial dysfunction.

Research in 2010 notes that major depression is associated with mitochondrial dysfunction. Certain imaging suggests some people living with depression already have mitochondrial dysfunction — and hypoxia could affect it further.

The researchers suggest that people with mitochondrial dysfunctions experience worsened depression symptoms when exposed to hypoxia.

Research from 2018 suggests hypoxia can change brain energy metabolism in a way that mirrors the changes in depression. Hypobaric hypoxia also has several effects on cognition which could mean widespread impairment in bioenergetics.

The most extensive research has been done on the link between suicide risk and elevation. In past research, altitude has been associated with suicide rates even after controlling for other things that could contribute.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. suicide rate increases significantly at 2,000 feet of elevation and continues to increase from there. They add that veterans over age 35 have an even higher risk.

Other conditions that may be affected by altitude include:

Some of the neurological symptoms that may occur at high altitudes — and could contribute to distress — include:

More evidence is needed, but some research suggests that the following supplements may help:

The thyroid hormone triiodothyronine (T3) may also be prescribed in combination with other depression medications. Research from 2017 suggests that adding T3 can be safe and effective for treating depression.

If you’re already taking an antidepressant, you may be able to work with your prescriber to increase your dosage or switch to another antidepressant.

Remember to always speak with a healthcare professional before adding any new supplements, as they could lead to unwanted side effects or interact with your current medications.

Traveling to high-altitude regions

Traveling to places at higher altitudes can be beneficial for your mental health — being out in nature, physical exercise, and exposure to sunlight can all positively affect mood.

Yet, if you’re planning a trip to especially high altitudes (like a hike in alpine environments) and have a history of mental health conditions, research in 2019 suggests checking in with your healthcare professional to see if any of your current medications could be affected by the altitude.

The researchers believe anyone with a currently stable mood disorder should be able to travel without an extra risk of it affecting their mental well-being.

Was this helpful?

No matter your current elevation, if you believe you’re experiencing symptoms of depression or another mental health condition, help is available.

Getting support often looks different from person to person. Help can look like taking medications, seeing professionals, community support and support groups, spiritual aid, self-care, and more.

Not sure where to start? Our guide to finding mental health services near you can help.

There does seem to be a connection between elevation and depression. Researchers believe that having less oxygen available for our bodies can affect us in several psychological ways.

Now, researchers need to figure out how to turn their theories into treatments for people living with depression at higher altitudes.

No matter where you live, support is available if you need it.