Robert Rountree, M.D., a physician practicing Functional Medicine, has asked an interesting question. Dr. Rountree is wondering if environmental toxins are playing a role in our current epidemic of mood disorders.
Dr. Rountree bases his “wondering” on the fact that a number of years ago a group of people who were using a recreational drug called MPPP developed a chronic neurodegenerative disease after a one-time exposure to a compound of this drug that was mixed with a neurotoxic chemical called mPTP.
Dr. Rountree wonders how many other environmental toxins like MPTP are capable of creating long-term brain damage even after a relatively limited exposure. I think his question is well-worth our attention and consideration.
Is chronic exposure to low levels of certain environmental toxins playing a role in our current epidemic of mood disorders? No one, Dr. Rountree concludes, really knows the answer to this question.
Following is something that we do know! According to the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, approximately one half of all teens in the United States meet the criteria for a mood, behavior, anxiety, or substance abuse disorder and one in four reports that the disorder interferes with daily life.
Translated into user-friendly language this means that approximately 25% of teens have a mood disorder so severe it impairs daily activities and causes great distress. In many cases, the problem never gets properly understood and therefore doesn’t get treated properly, which means those disturbed teenagers will grow up to be adults with chronic conditions that significantly impair their ability to function in society.
Growing up has never been easy. Teen-agers struggle with emotions, with figuring out the expectations of parents and teachers and with the establishment of their identity in family and society. But, to struggle with depression and/or anxiety so severe that it interferes with daily functioning? This is an outrageous situation that is crying out for correction. What kind of a future does our country have if a significant number of its members enter adulthood unable to function well?
Many of the adolescents suffering from a mood disorder are taken to psychiatrists who give them a diagnosis. Unfortunately all too often the diagnosis becomes an aspect, an all too important aspect, of the young person’s identity. The diagnosis can become over-arching and limit potential because of the meaning it carries.
Where can we begin to solve a problem of such magnitude?
In our book Healing Depression the Mind-Body Way Sandra and I explain that depression results from a nexus of factors and that a healthy lifestyle can go a long way to preventing and treating depression. This is undeniably true and even if environmental toxins are a significant aspect of the “depression problem” the stronger we make our mind-body, the better the chance for allaying the mood disorder problem.
As individuals we do not have the power to alter environmental toxins but we do have the wherewithal to build a strong shield against them. Sleep, that nurse of all creatures, is the number one tool for the construction of this shield. Teen-agers are frequently remiss in getting enough sleep. If this aspect of their lives can be changed we believe the incidence of depression will plummet.
Why? What happens when we sleep that makes this activity such a powerful agent of vitality?
First of all, success in life depends on our ability to be awake and aware; ironically, both wakefulness and awareness require deep, restorative sleep. In addition, both Ayurveda and modern medicine tells us that sleep deprivation is a major contributing factor to depression. Sleep debt “breaks” the brain. The brain possesses stimulating bio-chemicals that prepare it for interacting with the world. If either the production or the synergistic functioning of these neurochemicals is altered, our emotional health is jeopardized. Like a theater director, sleep sets the tone for the performance of the molecules of emotion.
By impairing the production and activity of brain chemicals, sleep debt diminishes our emotional well-being. We lose our optimism. Our enthusiasm for the things we love is squelched. Resiliency is challenged when we need it most. If the balance of waking time and sleeping time is disturbed, our spirit begins to fade.
We all, perhaps especially teen-agers, want to feel good without taking the time to get the rest we need. Nevertheless, the only way to fully energize the brain is to follow nature’s prescription and give the body as much sleep as it needs. Failure to do this is likely to result in a sleep- deprived body that will eventually succumb to depression.
I would be very surprised to learn that teen-agers are reading this blog but hopefully our voice, joined with many other voices, will eventually have an effect on culture. There is a groundswell working its way to a crescendo and the chorus is resoundingly reminding us that lifestyle (often referred to as living within the laws of nature) is a powerful antidote for the prevention of mood disorders.
Sleep, adequate sleep, will place a shield over the physiology, helping you and those you love to resist depression even if environmental toxins are, in part, a cause of this endemic problem.
Modern science and ancient science are coming together. They are meeting at a crossroads and hopefully will walk hand-in-hand down a new road together. Increasing numbers of physicians are reminding us of something that Ayurveda told us thousands of years ago— sleep is pivotal for health and well-being. Please take care that the children and teen-agers in your care receive plenty of “nature’s nurse.”
Should you have any doubts about the importance of sleep for the prevention and treatment of mood disorders pick up a copy of Healing Depression the Mind-Body Way. Sandra and I explain in detail what happens when the body shuts down. The essence is —–“when you snooze you don’t lose.”
Sandra and I wish you blissful sleep and successful happy days!