How To Better Prevent Suicides
New research confirms what we knew all along: healthy living goes a long way.
Posted August 12, 2019
Barring accidents, suicide is the number one cause of death for teens and adults up to age 34.
For ages 35 to 54, suicide deaths are only outstripped by cancer and heart disease. But this only recently became this case; back in 2000, 29,350 died of suicide, but that number jumped to 47,173 in 2017. The trend is a literal straight line, with roughly 1000 more suicides each year. It turns out that millennials and middle-aged men are at the highest risk. For a while, it was suspected that this was a cultural phenomenon, but further studies show suicide rates have increased across the entire world.
Speculation surrounding the suicide epidemic abounds. Some chalk it up to the ubiquity of guns, social media, or modern entertainment. But such perspectives do little to save lives here and now.
Neuropsychiatry, however, hints at a good first step to rolling back our suicide crisis. It starts with accepting that depression is a biological and fatal disease, not an inner weakness. Thus, asking the depressed to take a break, let it out, stay positive and keep their chin up will do about as much good as it would for swine flu. Sure, it could work, but it’s ludicrously negligent when people are dying.
For the unconvinced, there’s conclusive data to support that anybody and everybody exposed to the stress and inflammation of unhealthy living will develop depression, no matter how hard they pull at their bootstraps.
Time and time again, we see that depression moves in lockstep with higher levels of inflammatory signals and stress hormones. Scientists have uncovered a trove of inflammatory signal networks that are markedly higher in postmortem brains of suicide completers. What follows from inflammation is dead-simple: the brain’s emotion centers quite literally shrivel up and die.
In depression, we see lower brain volume in emotional centers, like the hippocampus. This is due to low levels of neurotrophins (a complicated name for brain fertilizer) and increased neuroinflammation. Exercise increases neurotrophin release and reduces inflammation throughout the body. Over time, the reduction of body fat further decreases inflammation, all the while improving sleep by reducing sleep apnea risk.
That segues us to the importance of sleep, which is tantamount to exercise. Only recently have we found out that sleep literally washes the brain of what pollution accumulates throughout the day. With chronic sleep deprivation, there’s a buildup of Alzheimer’s-associated amyloid, as well as evidence of “overdriven” neurons, which collectively result in what’s called excitotoxicity.
And all of these risk factors—low neurotrophin levels, neuroinflammation, amyloid buildup, overdriven neurons—are further influenced by food. The healthy gut produces a constant supply of the anti-excitotoxic mood stabilizer called valproate, but only with high-fiber diets. Thus, fiber-poor Western diets might be impairing the production of natural mood stabilizers. The high sugar and fat unique to Western diets lead intestinal toxins into our bloodstream.
But there’s a silver lining here: scary as this all sounds, these discoveries indicate that we’ve had the cure for severe depression all along: healthy living through exercise, sleep, and good diet. When one is slipping into the blues, reinforcing such healthy practices could make the future far less bleak.
The Big Caveat
It would be downright negligent, however, to say that healthy living is a cure-all. That is nowhere near the case. Healthy practices are far better at preventing, rather than treating disease. That leads to the most critical tenet of treating the depression and suicide epidemic: when sick with a deadly illness, get to the doctor! For a biological disease, it’d be absurd to avoid the doctor because she might prescribe pills or suggest a few night’s stays in the hospital, but it’s precisely at this crossroads when otherwise reasonable people falter.
Depression and suicide can happen to anyone for any reason. Any unpleasant life event, compounded with a disturbance of routine, can send people tumbling into oblivion. This proves easier than ever in modern life, where work, partying, and internet funnies put basic human needs on the backburner.
As suicide risk continues to rise, it’s worth reevaluating how we approach the problem at large. The stigma surrounding suicide and depression has put our entire society in denial, all the while people are ending their lives left and right. It's time we lift the wool from our eyes and stare the problem right in the face. Look out for yourself. Look out for friends and family. Be mindful of the symptoms. Most importantly, keep some time-tested wisdom in the back of your mind: whether it’s the flu or depression, healthy living and prompt medical care make all the difference.