When beloved actor Robin Williams committed suicide, it sent shock waves throughout the entire world. Many of us wondered how a man who had such talent to make people laugh could harbor so much personal sadness and despair.
The truth of the matter is suicide isn’t a choice—it’s a symptom of a disease, namely depression. Although at first glance, depression seems as if it’s a mental problem, in reality there’s more to the story. In most cases, a physical cause is behind this mental illness. If you or a loved one suffer from depression, getting to the root of the possible physical cause or causes can make a world of difference—and possibly even save a life.
In this article, I’m going to show you how taking charge of certain aspects of your physical health—or that of your loved ones—can give mental health a big boost, too. But first, let’s take a look at some suicide facts and how to recognize whether someone you know may be thinking about ending it all. As you’re reading this article, keep in mind that depression is a serious illness and you should always work with your doctor in using any of the advice in this article.
The Far-Reaching Consequences of Suicide
If you know someone who committed suicide, you may ask yourself over and over if there was something you could have done to save your friend or family member. For some people, the grief of losing a loved one to suicide takes a more deadly turn.
A recent study showed that people who are grieving the suicide of a romantic partner and mothers of adult children who killed themselves are at a significantly higher risk of committing suicide compared with people grieving the sudden deaths of loved ones from other causes. In addition, children whose mother committed suicide are more likely to suffer from long-term depression.1
Even more sobering is the fact that suicide rates are rising among adults. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 1999 and 2010, suicide increased by 28.4 percent in people ages 35 to 64.2 This means that more people die of suicide than in car accidents.
Signs to Watch For
According to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, here are some signs a person you know and love may be considering suicide:3
- Talking about wanting to die or kill themselves.
- Looking for a way to kill themselves, such as searching online or buying a gun.
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.
- Talking about being a burden to others.
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs.
- Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly.
- Sleeping too little or too much.
- Withdrawing or isolating themselves.
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.
- Displaying extreme mood swings.
Who Is at Risk?
Anyone can suffer from depression and think about suicide. But there are groups of people who may have a particularly high risk. Anyone who has suffered childhood abuse may be at risk for depression and suicide.4 Veterans also have a high suicide rate, especially those who have returned from active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.5
After a relationship breakup, men in particular are at an increased risk of suicide.6 Children and adolescents who have been bullied also are more vulnerable.7
Sadly, in the U.S., more than 6,000 senior citizens take their own lives every year.8 Because seniors tend to be more frail, most succeed on their first attempt to harm themselves.8 People who have chronic pain and people who are addicted to alcohol or drugs also are at higher risk of suicide.
The Suicide Gene
Scientists have uncovered a gene that is found more often in people contemplating suicide than in depressed people who don’t express a desire to harm themselves.9
Researchers examined the DNA of more than 400 people who had major depression. Approximately one-third of these people had attempted suicide. The researchers found that a connection between a variant of a gene called RGS2—which is involved in the activity of certain brain chemical receptors—and suicidal behavior.
The study authors found two copies of the variant linked to suicidal behavior in 43 percent of the suicidal patients. Less than 20 percent of these suicidal subjects had two copies of a variant that seemed to protect against suicide.
But just because it’s “in your genes” doesn’t mean it’s inevitable. If you’re depressed or know someone who is, it’s more important than ever to take care of the physical causes behind the depression and suicidal thoughts.
Physical Causes of Mental Illness
Let’s face it, if you’re depressed, the last thing you feel like doing is taking care of yourself. It becomes a catch-22 problem.
You don’t feel like doing even some relatively simple things that can make a huge difference in your outlook on life. So you feel even worse—and are even less likely to eat right and take care of yourself. That’s where friends and family are important.
They can urge you to take care of yourself even when it’s the last thing in the world you feel like doing. If you’re depressed, ask your friends and family to help you begin to practice some of the suggestions below. And if you’re a loved one of someone who is contemplating suicide, help them take care of themselves by suggesting they follow the suggestions below. Once you start feeling better, you’ll be more likely to take charge of your own health.
The Thyroid Connection
A little butterfly-shaped gland in your neck could be what’s making you feel sad and depressed. When the thyroid gland becomes sluggish, it can trigger a number of symptoms, including depression.
Scientists have found many connections between the thyroid gland and mood. In rodent studies, levels of the mood-boosting brain chemical serotonin rise in the brain after treatment with the thyroid hormone T3.10 During hypothyroidism, the brain also produces less serotonin.10
In human studies, the connection between depression and hypothyroidism is strongest in people with low thyroid function who are taking the thyroid hormone thyroxine. In a study of 697 hypothyroid subjects being treated with thyroxine, the people who had higher levels of TSH and lower free T4 (markers of hypothyroidism) were the ones most likely to experience a drop in their sense of well-being.11
Ask your doctor to order a blood test to measure your thyroid hormone levels. Working with a nutritionally minded physician, you can also get your iodine levels tested. Iodine is important for your thyroid gland to work properly. If your levels are low, supplementing with a combination of iodine/iodide can help nourish your thyroid gland.
Get Your ZZZZs
Lack of sleep is one of the most important risk factors for depression. In fact, a recent study found that senior citizens who didn’t sleep well were more likely to die by suicide compared with seniors who usually had a good night’s sleep.12
The researchers looked at the sleep quality of 20 people who died of suicide. They then compared this to the sleep quality of 400 people whose cause of death was not suicide. The study subjects who suffered from poor sleep were 1.4 times more likely to die by suicide within 10 years than subjects who said they usually slept well.
Sleeping poorly was an even stronger predictor of suicide than depressive symptoms. And combining poor sleep with depressed mood most reliably predicted suicide risk.
This wasn’t the first study to show a link between sleep deprivation and suicide. After interviewing the relatives of suicide victims, researchers conducting an earlier study in Japan found that sleep disturbances occurred significantly more often in a group of people who had committed suicide (75.5 percent) compared to the controls (11 percent). This group of researchers also found that poor sleep was responsible for more suicide cases than mental disorders.13
If sleep is an issue for you, there are some simple things you can try. First, take melatonin, 3 to 10 mg per night. Melatonin is the sleep hormone. It’s produced in the pineal gland of your brain mostly at night. Melatonin levels fall as we age. They also drop if you’re exposed to light at night. Supplementation can help restore melatonin levels and may help you sleep better.
In addition, avoid watching any action-adventure movies before bedtime. And try to avoid looking at computer screens or cell phones for at least a couple hours before bed since they emit blue light, which lowers melatonin levels.
It’s also a good idea to avoid caffeinated beverages (such as coffee or soda) after 12:00 noon. It takes some people 12 hours to metabolize caffeine. Plus, sleep in a dark room to boost your body’s natural supply of melatonin.
If you can’t sleep because you’re stressed, then follow some of the stress-relief suggestions below.
Combat the Stress
Chronic stress is not a friend to your peace of mind. In fact, chronic stress is a risk factor for major depression. Constant or near-constant stress changes the production of the mood-boosting brain chemical serotonin. In addition, when your brain produces new neurons in the hippocampus, it creates an antidepressant effect. But when chronic stress blocks the production of new brain neurons, it blocks this effect,14 making you more susceptible to depression.
Meditation and yoga are two ways to relieve chronic stress. Exercise is also a stress-reducer—plus, it can relieve depression, too. (More on this later).
Your alternative-minded doctor can also order an Adrenal Function Panel, a salivary hormone test that measures your cortisol levels. After you’ve been stressed for a long time, your cortisol levels can plummet, causing adrenal burnout. When this happens, your adrenal glands can no longer produce cortisol, leaving you feeling drained.
If the test results show your adrenals are exhausted, supplement with a combination of adrenal glandular and licorice root. Licorice can block the enzyme responsible for inactivating cortisol, causing cortisol levels to rise.15
Does Your Birth Month Put You at Greater Risk?
Scientists have found that being born during the summer may predispose schizophrenic persons to suicide.16 So why would season of birth matter? Your body produces vitamin D when your skin is exposed to sunlight. For people who are born in summer, the first two trimesters of their mother’s pregnancy are in late fall and winter, when vitamin D levels drop.
Similarly, in many countries, suicide rates are highest in spring, when vitamin D levels are lowest. In the winter, some people also develop a condition known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is a form of depression. Some research suggests low vitamin D levels may play a role in SAD.17
What’s more, low vitamin D levels are linked to suicide. Researchers studied blood samples of 495 U.S. military members who had committed suicide sometime in the last 24 months and compared them to samples from 495 controls. The service men and women who had committed suicide tended to have the lowest vitamin D levels.18
Your doctor can order a blood test to measure your vitamin D levels. Ideally, you want your vitamin D levels to hover between 50 ng/mL and 75 ng/mL all year long, even in winter. Supplement with 2,000 to 5,000 IU of vitamin D3 daily, depending on the results of your blood test.
Mood Enhancers from the Sea
Many studies have found a link between low levels of omega-3 fatty acids and depression. What’s more, adult, depressed suicide victims have lower levels of the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) compared with controls.19
One group of researchers investigated suicide deaths among active duty military and found that higher levels of DHA protected against suicide.20 Another group of researchers examined the medical literature and found that the omega-3 fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) acts as an antidepressant.21
Aim for 1 to 2 grams per day of a supplement containing both DHA and EPA, as this is the amount successfully used in studies of depression.
Your Diet and Depression
Sugar and high fructose corn syrup are two of the biggest offenders when it comes to mood-destroying foods. In one study of 23,976 adolescents in China, researchers investigated intake of soft drinks and sweet food consumption and suicidal behavior. Among the 12 to 19-year-olds studied, 20.5 percent reported that they drank soft drinks daily.
The adolescents who drank soft drinks were more likely to have a suicidal plan or have attempted suicide. Compared to the adolescents who drank soft drinks less than once per day, those who drank these beverages at least three times per day had an 80 percent increased risk for suicidal plans and were more than 3.5 times more likely to attempt suicide. Eating lots of sweet foods also was linked to an increased risk of suicidal behaviors.22
One thing you don’t have to give up is coffee, at least not in the morning. Harvard scientists found that drinking two to three cups of coffee daily is linked to a 45 percent reduced risk of suicide.23 The caffeine in coffee increases levels of brain chemicals like serotonin, making it a mild natural antidepressant. (Just don’t drink it in the afternoon or evening!)
It’s not only what you eat—it’s also what you don’t eat. If you’re not getting enough nutrients in your diet, it may leave you vulnerable to depression. One study showed that there’s an association between intakes of linoleic acid, riboflavin, niacin, folate, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, pantothenic acid, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, iron, magnesium and zinc and better mental health.24 So load up on veggies and fruit, and take a good multivitamin, too.
The More You Move, The Better Your Mood
A large number of studies show exercise can reduce the symptoms of major depression and anxiety disorders. Depressed people who exercise have been able to reduce their antidepressant dosages.25 In addition, physical activity can reduce the depression that occurs in Alzheimer’s patients.25
In one study, exercise worked as well as an antidepressant drug in reducing depression symptoms, but the effects of the antidepressant drug kicked in faster, and the exercise took longer to work. After 16 weeks, however, both the antidepressant drug and exercise worked equally well.26
Don’t Go It Alone
Talk to a friend or family member who can help you get motivated to put the advice in this article into practice. Your mental suffering may be caused by a number of physical problems such as specific nutrient deficiencies.
There are easy ways to address these physical problems such as supplementing with vitamin D3, omega-3 fatty acids and a good multivitamin, exercising, addressing thyroid issues, cutting sugar and soft drinks from your diet, practicing stress-reduction techniques and finding ways to get rid of your insomnia such as supplementing with melatonin. Once you take care of these physical problems, you’ll likely have a whole new outlook on life.
Finally, if you feel like you’re at the end of your rope, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK, where you will be connected to a helpful voice at your local or regional suicide lifeline.
- Pitman A, et al. The Lancet Psychiatry. June 2014;1(1):86-94.
- No authors listed. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). May 3, 2013; 62(17):321-5.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
- Pompili M et al. Psychiatry Res. 2014 Aug 13. [Epub ahead of print.]
- Kimbrel NA, et al. Psychiatry Res. 2014 Aug 14. [Epub ahead of print.]
- Scourfield J and Evans R. Am J Mens Health. 2014 Aug 26. [Epub ahead of print.]
- Duong J and Bradshaw C. J Sch Health. 2014 Oct;84(10):636-45.
- Conwell Y. Am J Prev Med. 2014 Sep;47(3 Suppl 2):S244-50.
- The Scientist. http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/31394/title/Suicide-Gene-Identified/.
- Dayan CM and Panicker V. Eur Thyroid J. Sep 2013;2(3):168-79.
- Saravanan P, et al. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2006 Sep;91(9):3389-93.
- Bernert RA, et al. JAMA Psychiatry. August 13, 2014. [Epub ahead of print.]
- Kodaka M, et al. Sleep Med. 2014 Apr;15(4):430-5.
- Mahar I, et al. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2014 Jan;38:173-92.
- Isbrucker RA and Burdock GA. Regul Toxicol Pharmacol. 2006 Dec;46(3):167-92.
- Karhumaa T, et al. Neuropsychobiology. 2013;68(4):238-42.
- Kiraly SJ, et al. The Scientific World Journal. 2006;6:125-39.
- Umhau JC, et al. PLoS One. Jan 4, 2013;8(1):e51543.
- McNamara RK, et al. J Psychiatr Res. 2013 Sep;47(9):1187-91.
- Lewis MD, et al. J Clin Psychiatry. 2011 Dec;72(12):1585-90.
- Sublette ME, et al. J Clin Psychiatry. 2011 Dec;72(12):1577-84.
- Pan X, et al. Acta Paediatr. 2011 Nov;100(11):e215-22.
- Lucas M, et al. The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry. July 2014. 15(5):377-86.
- Davison KM and Kaplan BJ. Can J Psychiatry. 2012 Feb;57(2):85-92.
- Eyre HA, et al. Front Psychiatry. Feb 4, 2013. [Epub ahead of print.]
- Blumenthal JA, et al. Arch Intern Med. 1999 Oct 25;159(19):2349-56.