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We're still living in the Stone Age when it comes to our understanding of mental illness. If you find out that your mom needs pills to control her blood pressure, you shrug and forget about it; if you find out that your mom needs pills to keep from hearing voices in her head, you think you're living in a horror movie.

But your brain is just another part of your body, and just as you can get a cold by touching a doorknob somebody sneezed on, there are all sorts of random and innocuous things that can make it go haywire. Like ...

Your Birth Month


Typically, the month you're born in doesn't affect much beyond determining what major holiday will make everyone forget to send you a card. However, a recent study in the U.K. showed that your birth month can potentially do catastrophic damage to your mental well-being, and it has nothing to do with that time your friends skipped out on your birthday dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings to get drunk in a parking lot for St. Patrick's Day.

"OK, we'll be there in 20 minutes, for real this time ... 20 to 30. Better make it 30."

One study found that almost every mental illness was connected to what month you were born in -- if you were born in January, you're more likely to be schizophrenic or bipolar. But if you were born in the spring, you're far more likely to get depressed.

And the effects aren't minor -- the results of the study, which looked at every reported suicide in Great Britain over a 20-year period (about 27,000 total), found that people born in the spring were 17 percent more likely to commit suicide. The statistics were worse for women -- females born in April, May or June were 30 percent more likely to kill themselves than people born in the fall.

To be fair, people born in November, December and January get 24 percent fewer birthday gifts.

What the hell? Is it because babies born during the sunny, awesome spring months get the false idea that the world always looks like that, then six months later get bummed out by everything turning dead and brown? Because you'd think that they'd get over it after a few cycles. If there's a genetic component to it, what does that mean -- that depressed people are more fertile from August to October? That people with schizophrenia all start boning in April and May? We'd have heard something about that, wouldn't we?

The reality is that nobody is really sure what causes it. The researchers believe that it might have something to do with temperature, which can affect the way brain cells are arranged in a developing fetus. Babies are not microwave-safe, nor can they be kept in a refrigerator, but children born in the spring have experienced both extremes during their nine months in the womb. Or maybe it's that pregnant women eat different diets during the winter months, or that less time in the sun affects vitamin D levels. Or maybe it's, like, astrology or something.

Having an Older Dad


So it makes sense that what your mother does while pregnant affects how you turn out -- obviously there's a reason that pregnant women are told to abstain from alcohol, tobacco and kickboxing. Likewise, you probably already know that older mothers are at higher risk of all sorts of difficulties during pregnancy. But Dad seems to really get off the hook here. So, what, sperm is just invincible?


Nope, and in fact, if you have an older father, his ancient sperm makes you more likely to be born with autism or schizophrenia.

A study done in Iceland involving about 80 different sets of parents with no mental disorders who had given birth to autistic or schizophrenic children found that the risk of having a child with either affliction increased with the father's age (the mother's age had no effect). The reason for the increased risk is related to the way sperm is produced in a man's body -- sperm just kind of clones itself over and over again, like a Dilbert cartoon in an office Xerox machine.

"These simple witticisms are the only things keeping me from taking this whole place down in a cleansing bath of flame."

And as with a Xerox machine, each subsequent copy is a little less sharp than the previous one -- each generation of sperm has an increased chance of mutation over the last. While none of these are the bitching kind of mutations that let you shoot lasers out of your face, most are relatively harmless. However, some of these mutations have been linked to autism, schizophrenia and other mental disorders, a connection that was totally supported by the Icelandic study. Of the cases they examined, as many as 30 percent could be attributed to the snowy white Albert Einstein hairs beginning to sprout from the father's musty old beanbag.

The estimated risk is admittedly low (maybe about 2 percent for a man in his 40s), but the number of sperm mutations steadily increases with each passing year. For example, a 20-year-old father has about 25 genetic mutations swirling around in his gravy orbs. Once he hits 40, that number is around 65. While it is by no means a guarantee that older men will father autistic and/or schizophrenic children, parents are definitely rolling the dice each year that they wait.

The MSNBC version of this graph has dicks for the axes.

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Living in High Altitudes


OK, so suppose you were born in the dead of winter after being conceived in a Wendy's parking lot on your parents' prom night, successfully dodging those first two bullets we discussed and leaving absolutely no reason for you to be depressed or emotionally unstable. Not so fast, jack. Take a look at the stack of unpaid bills on the plastic table in the kitchen. If the address says something like Colorado or Utah and you can look out the window and see mountains, your brain eggs may well be scrambled.

Why? Because living in high altitudes makes people suicidal.

"Maybe it's the hypoxia talking, but I could totally land this."

Out of the 10 states in the U.S. with the highest suicide rates, nine are Western states situated pretty far above sea level (like Utah, which sits at an average altitude of 6,500 feet). These states tend to have high rates of both alcoholism and gun ownership, as well as low population densities -- three things that also contribute to suicides (because that's what happens when you're fighting boredom with a case of Keystone Light, five handguns and no neighbors for 9 miles in any direction). Even after accounting for these factors, however, researchers found that people who lived in those high-altitude Western states were still 33 percent more likely to take themselves out.

This isn't just an American phenomenon, either. To test if it was really the elevation driving people bananas, the researchers conducted the same study in South Korea, where they found that people living at the same 6,500-foot altitude as Utah were a staggering 125 percent more likely to punch their own ticket.

Polygamy is Utah's only saving grace.

So why does this happen? Once again, nobody is certain. The scientists involved with the study think that the increased suicide risk might have something to do with the lack of oxygen in the air so far above sea level. Even a comparatively small depreciation of oxygen can put severe metabolic stress on the brain, which can either plant the seed of crazy or stoke the fires of pre-existing madness like a gasoline-spewing Gary Busey.

Warm Weather and Sunlight


So we joked that everybody waits until fall/winter to get depressed, but it's not a joke -- there is actually a term for it (seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, hilariously). It's basically a cyclical depression that some people experience during the winter months. This is understandable -- the days are short and cold, the nights are long, lonely and freezing, and you hear three straight months of Christmas music.

"Come here. I just want to talk. About killing you."

However, there is a small percentage of people who go through the winter whistling merrily, twirling a cane and spinning a top hat (probably), only to have the bright months of summer hit them like the death of Mufasa. The warm weather and piercingly joyous sunlight actually make them horribly suicidal.

Only 1 percent of Americans reportedly suffer from summer SAD (as opposed to the 5 percent who suffer from winter SAD), but the symptoms are pretty extreme -- one sufferer blacks out all her windows like a drug-dealing Batman and sleeps with frozen bottles of water in her bed, simply because the sunlight and the heat make her abysmally depressed. It isn't a body image thing, either -- people who suffer from summer SAD aren't just walking beanbags who hate going to the beach for fear of being mistaken for a Cloverfield hatchling crawling out of the ocean in board shorts. The disorder affects them at a deep neurological level, keeping most victims indoors for months (even bedridden), experiencing extreme weight loss and paralyzing anxiety.

At least you can watch The Wire in its entirety.

Research shows that cases become more prevalent closer to the equator. Southern states in the U.S. report more summer SAD victims, and in the hottest parts of India (which you may recognize as an entire country situated almost directly above the equator), the condition is actually common -- more people there suffer from summer SAD than winter SAD, possibly because India is a place where winter does not exist.

Scientists aren't really sure why this happens to some people, but they do have some guesses. For one thing, heat does things to the body, like suppressing the thyroid hormone, which results in a severe energy drain that is a telltale symptom of depression and could explain why summer SAD victims stay in bed all day. High temperatures also stimulate a specific hormone called prolactin, which sounds like that foot fungus repellent John Madden sells but totally isn't. Prolactin can block the effects of dopamine, better known as the feel-good juice your body produces in response to pleasurable stimulation. It is essentially the only reason anybody does anything, and if a person's ability to feel the effects of dopamine were blocked (say, by warm weather), he or she would be one sad bastard.

Interestingly, many antidepressants actually lower a person's body temperature, which seems to further indicate some relationship between heat and debilitating misery.

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Your Diet


We know what you're thinking -- obviously your diet influences your health, mental and physical. After all, you can't just congeal in a recliner all day long, osmosing french fries and pizza sauce through your Ghostbusters T-shirt and chest folds, and not expect to get a little depressed. So you scoff at the Twinkies and stick to fish (grilled but never fried), congratulating yourself as you picture rainbows and sunshine pouring out of each bite of cod you take.

"I also increase your penis size!"

Well, guess what: Eating fish and other seafood has been linked to Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, as well as a neurological disease called ALS that cripples the brain and spinal cord to the point where the victim can no longer swallow or even breathe. Cases are most prevalent around large bodies of water, or in areas where the diet consists primarily of things caught in large bodies of water. This is because of the presence of a toxin called BMAA, which is produced by cyanobacteria, a type of algae that lives in lakes and oceans and was in no way represented by Sebastian the crab's delightful musical number.

And no, this doesn't mean that you should sprint to the nearest KFC with an armload of ice cream and chocolate sauce and make a Famous Bowl sundae. If you fill yourself with fatty foods and sweets, you're essentially loading your body with insulin, to the point that your brain will no longer respond to it. And when your brain can't respond to insulin, it can't make new memories, leaving you with the same symptoms as dementia. As soon as you get home from the Colonel's grease-bucketed shame dispensary, you'll forget that you were just there, and you'll hop right back into your Aspire and haul yourself down the road for another five-piece meal in an endless cycle, like a fat Memento.

"Goddamn movie still makes no sense."

Diets high in sugar and fat can also lead to depression and schizophrenia, because science isn't doing its job unless it is spoiling everything that has ever made you happy. Sugar suppresses a vital growth hormone in the brain called BDNF, which affects memory (did we mention that already?). Low BDNF levels are characteristic of schizophrenics and people suffering from depression, which, as fate would decree, is compounded by a low intake of fish and seafood.

So basically, you can't eat a damned thing without ruining your brain.

"Damned if you don't mind if I do."

You can read more from XJ at his writing blog, and he'll love you for an entire minute if you follow him on Twitter. You can look at Nadia's Flickr here.

For more ways you're killing yourself, check out The 5 Strangest Ways Your Mind Can Get Your Body Sick and 8 Health Foods That Are Bad For Your Health.

If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 5 Extremely Stupid Things People Did to Get Rid of Pests.

And stop by LinkSTORM because today is Friday and your brain needs a day off.

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