I recently attended a talk by Professor Sarah E. Hill titled  “The evolutionary foundations of the mental health crisis among women”.  It made me think about many of our current norms and the impact on our mental health.  It’s alarming how many people are suffering from mental health issues such as anxiety and depression and stress is a constant for many people.  I’ve summarised my main learnings from the talk for you.  

Women’s Mental Health Statistics

To set the scene here are a  few statistics relating to Women’s mental health

  • Depression is the most common mental health problem for women
  • 10-15% of mothers get post partum depression
  • Women experience depression at twice the rate of men
  • Women are twice as likely to have an anxiety disorder
  • Men are more likely to die by suicide but women attempt suicide twice as often
  • 1 in 12 women develop alcohol dependence during their lives

Are current habits causing stress?

We have inherited traits that helped our ancestors survive and reproduce in a hunter-gatherer context. This means that changes in our environment can create discrepancies that don’t match the way we have evolved.  These mismatches can cause stress.

Consider the following discrepancies between our ancestral environments compared to how we live today.   These discrepancies can all have an impact on female mental health:

  • women used to be relegated to the motherhood role, now we have choices. This provides many benefits but rather than either/or many women opt for being wage earners and primary care givers. This can create stress to be everything to everyone.
  • Fewer people live in multigenerational living scenarios and hence have less immediate kin to help with child rearing ( there is no longer a village to raise a child). Parenting is in many instances now done by the biological parents only.
  • Less time pregnant and lactating – this means decreased progesterone exposure. Progesterone can be calming and neuroprotective.
  • Our diet lacks the nutrients needed for mental health. In particular, the typical diet contains too many sugars, leading to insulin resistance which has an impact on inflammation and increases stress hormones. High sugar can also result in unstable blood glucose which can result in nervousness and anxiety. In ancestral environments seasonal fruits were the only source of sugar, it was natural sugars and in greatly decreased quantities.
  • We are exposed to less sunlight as we spend more time indoors – sunlight is a source of vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency is higher in people with major depressive disorder.  Sunlight also promotes healthy sleep and stimulates serotonin which plays a key role in mood.
  • Lack of microbial diversity – there is emerging evidence that gut microbiota is important in the regulation of brain activity and cognitive functions.
  • Physical activity has reduced dramatically due to both farming and technological advances. Mental health benefits of exercise include decreased stress, improved sleep, enhanced memory
  • Social media exposure: self-perception is profoundly affected by social comparisons.  Ancestrally there would be a handful of people better than you at things you excel at – now there may be thousands!
  • Too much news: Information overload 24/7 news cycle, notifications on phones. Women’s fear response is more easily triggered than mens, leading to more stress from news.

Which of these scenarios do you relate to most?

What can you do?

Pick two things you could do today to bridge the gap and start to positively influence your mental health.    Here are a few suggestions:

  • walks outside
  • sunlight
  • plants
  • realistic expectations of yourself and your partner
  • call kin or close friends
  • get a pet
  • dietary changes
  • sleep
  • social media/news fasting
  • seek professional help, speak to your GP or a counsellor or psychologist
  • And of course – talk to me about Metabolic Balance if you are serious about addressing your future health by balancing your blood sugar and decreasing inflammation

What others can you think of for your situation?

Making these changes may not be easy, but keep in mind the benefits they make to your mental health!