According to a recent study, nearly one in 10 Americans are prescribed anti-depression medication, a two-fold increase in the past 10 years. This number does not include those who are clinically depressed and under the care of psychiatrists. Children as young as six years old are being prescribed Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Celexa, Lexapro, and Luvox; all are a class of serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, or SSRI’s. SSRI’s can have serious side-effects such as irritability, sleeplessness, mood instability, nervousness, agitation, or suicidal thoughts. A similar percentage of boys over the age of 10 pop Ritalin or another type of amphetamine-like stimulant. And nearly 250,000 people get a prescription for anxiety-easing, mind-numbing Xanax, Valium, or Ativan.¬†Dr. Julian Whitaker recently reported that a large survey found that 46% of the respondents met the American Psychiatric Association diagnostic criteria for having, or having had at least one mental disease, and most of them “qualified” for more than one. In fact, one in 76 Americans is considered “mentally ill” enough to receive government disability checks (Health & Healing, November, 2011). Are we really all just suddenly becoming depressed? Or is it something else?

Dr. Andrew Weil and others have developed ¬†some interesting theories which are quite plausible. According to Dr. Weil, “in my experience, the more people have, the less likely they are to be contented. There is abundant evidence that depression is a “disease of affluence,” a disorder prominent in the industrialized world. People who live in poorer countries have a much lower risk of depression. In other words, those farthest removed from modern standards have the lowest rates of depression (Newsweek, November 7 & 14, 2011).”

Psychologist Martin Seligmen, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied the Old Order Amish, a religious sect that shuns modernity in favor of rural lifestyles 200 years ago, concludes, “Putting this together, there seems to be something about modern life that creates fertile soil for depression.” Dr. Seligmen has studied premodern cultures from around the globe with the same conclusion. These cultures exhibit perhaps 10 % of the depression that modern cultures do.

In agreement is another prominent researcher, Stephen Iliard, professor of psychology at the University of Kansas and author of the Depression Cure. He writes, “The more ‘modern’ a society’s way of life, the higher its rate of depression.” Why is this?” Dr. Weil et. al. believe that the explanation is simple: “The human body was never designed for the modern post-industrial environment.”

As Dr. Weil puts it; “more and more of us are sedentary, spending most of our time indoors. We eat industrial food much altered from its natural sources, and there is reason for concern about how are changed eating habits are affecting our brain activity and our moods. We are deluged by an unprecedented overload of information and stimulation in this age of the Internet, email, mobile phones, and multimedia, all which favor social isolation and certainly affect our emotional and physical health.”

Humans evolved to thrive in natural environments and in bonded social groups. What we have today is a far cry from such a life, but our genetic predisposition for it has not changed. So, what do we do to correct it? Take medication? I hardly think so. Evidence is gathering about the benefits of living closer to nature, not just for enjoying its beauty or giving the spirit a lift, but there is sound scientific/medical reasons for keeping our brains and nervous systems in good working order. Dr. Weil has some suggestions. They include: 1) Spend more time outdoors to get the necessary vitamin D, now known to be necessary for optimum brain health. 2) Our sleep and waking cycles and other circadian rhythms are maintained by exposure to bright light during the day and darkness at night. During the day, most of us are exposed to a lack of bright light during daytime hours and artificial light at night, which disrupt these rhythms. Studies show a negative impact on our sleep, energy, and moods. 3) Hunter-gatherers and other early people’s did not develop the deficits of vision and the need for corrective lenses as early in life as people in our society do, probably because they grew up looking at distant landscapes more often than reading books, writing, or staring at televisions or computer screens. Because the eye is a direct extension of the brain, eye health is an indicator of brain health.

Dr. Weil goes on to say that “our brains are simply not suited for the modern world. Our brains, genetically adapted to help us negotiate a successful course through complex, changing, and often hazardous natural environments, are suddenly confronted with an overload of information and stimulation devoid of physical activity.”

Lifestyle programs to correct this imbalance include: Increasing exercise, improving sleep, spending more time in the sun, eating more fish to boost brain-healthy omega-3’s, socializing more, and not dwelling on negative thoughts. Tips: 1) sleep in complete darkness, and try to be out in bright light during the day. 2) Reach out to others-we are social animals. Facebook and Twitter do not count. 3) Set limits on the amount of time you spend on the internet, with email, or on the phone. 4) Mindfulness training is an excellent way to develop your powers of concentration and attention-stay in the present.

Check out Dr. Weil’s new book Spontaneous Happiness-it’s a good read.

Stay well, John R Blilie, M.S.