The Environment’s Role in Mental Health and Addiction

Dr. Mark Calarco
By Dr. Mark Calarco on Tue, Nov 15, 2016 - 3:13pm

It’s no secret poor environmental conditions increase a person’s risk for physical health problems, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, or other chronic illnesses. But many aren’t aware that these same factors negatively affect mental health and recovery, too.

A few of these environmental stressors include:

  • Pollution — The fact that pollution so greatly affects our physical health means it also affects our mental health. Increased risks of serious diseases can lead to issues like depression and self-medication, even in people who don’t already have it. The effects are worse for patients with pre-existing mental health conditions or a co-occurring disorder like addiction.
  • Bacteria — The trillions of bacteria in our guts produce hormones and other chemical signals that affect our mood and behavior. Foreign microbes from the environment, modified foods, antibiotic medications, and more can wreak havoc with our endocrine systems, exacerbating mental disorders heavily affected by hormonal balance.
  • Overcrowding — Humans are adaptable, but over millennia, we’ve evolved in an agrarian society. Now, our cities are so overcrowded that resources are strained, including space. Studies have shown city life can double the risk of developing mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, due to the overabundance of crowding and noise pollution.
  • Electromagnetic Radiation (EMR) — Everyday necessities like our phones can persistently bathe us in EMR, which greatly affects the biochemical reactions in our bodies. Prolonged exposure to elevated EMR levels has been shown to increase rates of cancer in animals and is suspected to do the same in humans.

Environmental Stress and Mental Health

For someone who is dealing with depression or in recovery from addiction, each of these stressors can potentially trigger a relapse, making it difficult to complete a program or cope with a mental health issue.

One major driver behind this connection is sleep quality — any stressor from the environment can have drastic influences on our sleep cycles. The stress from sleep deprivation can cause or exacerbate feelings of anxiety and depression as well as disrupt hormones that regulate mental health.

Environmental factors don’t just affect sleep, though. Many dealing with mental health issues might find environmental conditions can affect their metabolisms and hormonal balances as well — two major factors in maintaining stability with mental health.

Imagine battling the depression and anxiety that triggers addiction while simultaneously living in an overcrowded city with pollution, all-night lights, and noise. It’s adding straw to a camel’s back — with enough weight, people will self-medicate in any way available, whether healthy or unhealthy.

Identifying and Avoiding Environmental Risks

If your sleep quality has dropped or you’re feeling tired, anxious, or stressed (and you aren’t sure why), your environment may be at play. The cause might be related to chemical or electromagnetic exposure or even to your work or living environment. If you aren’t certain, look for a pattern when you feel unwell.

Some experience feelings of depression when they eat certain foods or drink out of plastic bottles. Chemicals in genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and even food containers, like phthalate and bisphenol A, are known endocrine disruptors that contribute to physical and mental health disorders. Others might feel most anxious at work but feel better once they get home. Patterns like these help you identify where your stress is coming from so you can adjust your environment to solve it.

Avoiding what disrupts your sleep or affects your anxiety looks different between what you’re working to reduce or eliminate. People whose depression spikes with particular foods or plastic bottles might want to switch to a more organic diet or cut out specific food groups, but those experiencing stress from their living or work environment will likely take a different approach.

These individuals will want to adjust or take breaks from the environmental factors affecting their health, and that looks different for each person and her respective environment. For those with lots of exposure to EMR at home or work, taking designated time away from your phone should be a priority.

And if you can’t control the factor itself — perhaps you live in a city with high air pollution — you can work to control the effect it has on you. Take time day to day for yourself, whether it’s yoga, arts and crafts, or any activity that helps you unwind. This may even mean a vacation — ever notice how people in cities like New York seek refuge in quieter spots like Connecticut? The change is a buffer against the stimuli and stress that permeate their everyday environment.

Whether or not you can control your environment’s conditions, you can work to relieve the negative effects it has on you, but understanding and identifying those detrimental factors is the first step. With mental health of any kind, a better understanding of your environment leads to a better understanding of what works best for your health.

Dr. Mark Calarco is the national medical director of American Addiction Centers, a leader in drug and alcohol abuse treatment. He is a pioneer in treating hormone imbalances in recovering individuals and has served as a board member for the State of Tennessee Medical Laboratory Board and the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine. Dr. Calarco was also the first board-certified anti-aging and regenerative medicine specialist in Tennessee.

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