In March this year researchers showed that rats exposed to high-altitude conditions exhibited increased depression-like behaviour. This study proved that hypoxia (low oxygen levels) is a distinct risk factor for depression in those that either live at high altitudes or suffer from COPD, asthma or who smoke.
The link between altitude and high depression rates and suicide is very obvious in the intermountain region of the United States where the rates are considerably higher than any other part of America. The region has earned itself the nick-name of the ‘suicide belt’.
Rats are not however subject to the same psychological and social pressures as people are and more research on humans would need to be undertaken in order to substantiate this link. Other risk factors are also important such as poverty, low population and psychiatric disorders. This study shows that this risk factor would be present with everybody who either live in high altitudes or suffer with a condition that results in a lowering of oxygen levels in your blood.
Hypoxia is thought to impair an enzyme involved in the synthesis of serotonin (a compound that contributes to happiness and feelings of well-being), resulting in lower Serotonin levels and leading to depression. Depression is normally treated with anti-depressants however ‘The Utah Paradox’ illustrates how drugs do not necessarily work in high-altitude regions, as Utah has the highest depression index and the highest use of antidepressants in the country.
The fact that both depression and suicide rates increase with altitude, where there are low oxygen levels, implies that antidepressant treatment is not adequate for those suffering from depression and as low oxygen is the main common factor in most cases, maybe this needs to be looked into as a possible new treatment for depression in those that experience low oxygen levels.
Significant improvements were demonstrated when schizophrenic patients underwent oxygen therapy and now they will try it out on sufferers of depression. Oxygen therapy is easy, non-invasive and safe so new research will trial it on sufferers of low and medium-level depression.
Researchers found that exposing psychiatric patients to 40% concentration of oxygen rather than 21% oxygen levels from the air, via a plastic tube is safe and effective and the patients functioned significantly better than those who inhaled normal air. Increasing the supply of oxygen to the brain will increase the function of mitochondria which produce energy in the cells. Poorly functioning mitochondria can disrupt the functioning of neurones and the electrical activity of the brain. Theoretically therefore raising oxygen levels inhaled by patients can improve psychiatric functioning, it now just needs to be proven. If it is proven to be the case then oxygen therapy could relieve depression symptoms in hours/days and weeks compared to antidepressants which can take months and years to take full effect. You wouldn’t be using medications but a natural substance, which is easy to use, cheaper and brings about results a lot quicker, reducing the likelihood of a potential attempt on life.