My hypothesis is that psychopathology is caused or exacerbated by a mismatch between our modern environments and the mostly hunter-gatherer environment in which we evolved over the past several million years. Compare tens of thousands of human generations evolved during the paleolithic period compared to a mere 500 generations since the advent of agriculture and thus grains, cities, and modern epidemic infectious disease. Consider the very, very few generations since the loss of certain parasites (which we co-evolved with, unlike modern populous viral infections such as the flu) and the advent of the digital age and blue light at night.
All of these vast changes affect our sleep, energy, hormones, and micro nutrition, and it is not that difficult to trace different elements to increases in inflammation (immune system reaction). Inflammation, while keeping us alive by fighting off infections and cancer cells as they arise in our body, is also very likely responsible for our modern Western diseases. Inflammation is found in the fat cells and the liver in obesity and diabetes. It is found in our brains and blood in depressive disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and dementia. Inflammation goes hand in hand with the disordered stress response we see in anxiety disorders and depression as well: see Stress The Killer Disease
In fact, a brand new study has just linked high levels of C reactive protein, an inflammatory marker in the blood, to symptoms of depression in a general population study of Denmark. A news write-up of the study can be found here.
Depressive diseases in particular may be a consequence of adaptations to fight off modern infectious disease. I discussed the science behind that theory in Depression, A Deal With The Devil.
While it is difficult to do much about the vast number of viruses that are floating around, trying to sicken us (other than wash ones hands and get vaccinated), it is easier to make a few lifestyle modifications to make our modern environments a little less shocking to our bodies, brains, and immune systems. The good news is these lifestyle modifications are common sense, and ought to help both body and mind and general health, and they would seem to be low risk. The bad news is there are no randomized controlled trials testing the full intervention in psychiatric disorders.
Keeping that in mind, here are some general recommendations and some links to previous Evolutionary Psychiatry blog articles with some more specific evidence. As always, you may have a specific medical or genetic condition (such as being without a gall bladder or vulnerability to iron-loading called hemochromatosis or familial hypercholesterolemia) which might mean these recommendations might not all apply to your personal situation.
1) Enrich your micro nutrition. Eat nutrient-dense food. In my mind, that means whole, “real” foods. If your food has a label, you should probably eat less of it. I eat mostly vegetables, starchy tubers and squash, fruits, fish, shellfish (as tolerated) meat of all kinds (beef, pork, chicken), organ meats, eggs, and nuts. Drink mineral water from time to time as well. Use natural fats in your cooking, such as olive oil, pastured lard, coconut oil, or pasture butter. Include some fermented, probiotic-rich foods such as Kombucha, kimchi, or sauerkraut. Gentle food preparation methods, such as slow, lower temperature cooking, steaming, boiling, and poaching are likely best. Some people tolerate dairy and most legumes very well and they can also be rich sources of nutrition if prepared correctly.
2) Get plenty of good sleep if you can. For many, better quality sleep that can help depressive-type symptoms can come from going to bed earlier and waking up earlier. Try to avoid computers and phones and other blue lights before bedtime or especially during the middle of the night. Wear loose-fitting clothing and keep your room dark and cool, but not cold. Modest magnesium supplementation can sometimes improve sleep, and studies of the general population show that the majority of people eating a standard diet will get somewhat lower than the daily recommended amounts of magnesium.
3) Exercise as tolerated. Longer, easier stints such as gardening, walking and hiking will give a lot of benefit with less risk of injury. Yoga and other mindfulness-based exercises seem to have specific benefits for anxiety. A few sessions a week of weight training, and some sprint-type work as health and mobility permit will also improve muscle mass, strength, and insulin sensitivity. Too much intensive exercise, particularly when combined with poor nutrition and poor sleep will likely cause more harm than good.
Other Psychology Today Blogs can give you ideas how to reduce stress, enrich your relationships with family, friends, and neighbors, and improve your love life. In the mean time, think about some of the above recommendations to improve your body and mind in 2013.
Many more articles at Evolutionary Psychiatry
Copyright Emily Deans, MD