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 2010suggests 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
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.
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
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.
You can think of brain bioenergetics as your brain’s energy metabolism. When this is altered or impaired, it’s called mitochondrial dysfunction.
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
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:
- bipolar disorder
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- substance use disorders
Some of the neurological symptoms that
- headaches and migraine
- physical and mental fatigue
- insomnia and other sleep difficulties
- pins-and-needle sensations (paresthesias)
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.
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,
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.
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.