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Balancing your lifestyle seasonally can help combat high-altitude mental health risks.

Not surprisingly, mountain towns are endorphin factories. Breathtaking vistas provide a daily backdrop for runners, pedalers, skiers, and hikers alike. With all these good vibrations floating around in high-altitude locales like Park City, enjoying good mental health should be simple, right? If only this were true 100 percent of the time.

A 2015 University of Utah study revealed that living with hypobaric hypoxia, the reduced oxygen experienced at high altitude, is a risk factor for depression. Findings that support a sobering statistic from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: in 2012, the eight Intermountain West states—Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico—had suicide rates exceeding 18 per 100,000 people, compared with the national average of 12.5 per 100,000. But rather than turning immediately to pharmaceuticals for relief, local experts are advising their clients to adopt a seasonally deliberate approach to exercise, nutrition, and rest—both for the body and mind; a lifestyle prescription that may help some become more resilient to the downsides of living on high.

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The mental-health benefits of regular exercise are well documented. But according to Park City Ayurveda practitioner Maggie Koblasova, owner of Ananda Ayurveda (435.729.0556), you can further the benefits of your daily workout by choosing what to do based on the seasons. She recommends focusing on vigorous, cardio-based exercise—think trail running or cycling—in the spring, a natural time of cleansing and renewal. “After being in winter hibernation mode, it’s important to move out those heavy, mucousy fluids that tend to build up in the body during the cold weather months,” she says. It’s also important to avoid overtraining, which can deplete the immune system and cause irritability. And then in the fall, she says, switch your exercise routine to strength-based activities like weightlifting or yoga, which will help fortify your body for the cold and dry months ahead. “In the Ayurvedic tradition, the body, mind, and spirit are on the same continuum,” she says, “and one affects the other—if your body feels better, your mind will calm.”

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Maggie Koblasova (left) and Wendy Troxel

Eat

Seasonal eating is not only healthy for the planet, but is healthy for your mood, too. Koblasova is adamant that tailoring your diet to the seasons is paramount in overall health. In the spring, she advises her clients eat plenty of fresh, bitter greens to, again, promote tissue cleansing and purification. In the summer, when the digestive system is at its peak function, eat mostly colorful and raw foods and avoid hot and spicy foods, “particularly in midday,” she says, “which can lead to irritability, impatience, and making your focus overly sharp,” she says. As the year progresses from harvest season to colder months, Koblasova recommends reintroducing warm, moist, comfort foods back into your diet, taking care to break down ingredients before you consume them, ideally by steaming or roasting.

Sleep

Wendy Troxel, a Park City resident, licensed clinical psychologist, and certified behavioral sleep medicine specialist (sleepwell@centurylink.net), has found that “many people are surprised by the fact that sleep problems are not only a symptom of virtually every known mental health condition, but they can also predict the onset of mental health problems, including depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even suicide.” She explains that “seasons can affect our sleep in a variety of ways, both due to changes in temperature and exposure to sunlight. In the winter, we get less exposure to sunlight, which influences melatonin levels and makes us feel sleepier. Whether we actually sleep more during the winter is up for debate and varies person to person.” To help maintain a healthy biological clock—and, in turn, good mental health—Troxel’s advice is simple: try to wake up and go to bed at generally the same time every day.  

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Jeff Fink

Image: Jeff Fink 

There’s a reason so many people are talking about meditation and the benefits of mindful living: it lowers stress-induced cortisol levels, boosts endorphins, promotes longevity—and the list goes on and on. But lesser known are how getting outside—as touted by Koblasova previously—can complement a regular meditation practice. So says Jeff Fink, director of the Park City Shambhala Group, a form of meditation that instills resiliency through constant interaction with nature. “For example,” Fink says, “we might find ourselves becoming increasingly selective about when to go out skiing, only venturing forth on powder days or on days of warm spring sunshine. Instead, we might practice embracing whatever the weather offers, testing ourselves in conditions that are not ideal. We learn to love relating to the mountains and surrender our insistence on a ‘better’ day. This helps us learn to forego bargaining for an alternative reality and live the actual life that arises.”

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