Clean Cooking for Mental Health: New Studies Find Links Between Polluting Cooking Fuel Use and Depression
Science has shown that many factors can influence our mental well-being, such as our genetic makeup, brain chemistry, and childhood experiences. However, new research reveals a risk factor that has rarely been associated with mental health: the way we cook. For Mental Health Awareness Month, the Clean Cooking Alliance examined this relationship.
Globally, 2.6 billion people in low- and middle-income countries prepare their food using polluting fuels – driven by necessity instead of choice – with health consequences especially impacting women. Two new studies highlight how cooking with polluting fuels can increase the risk for depression while clean cooking solutions can decrease this risk.
In one study, Xing Li and colleagues (2022) analyzed mental health survey data from people in six low- and middle-income countries who cook with polluting fuels, including firewood, charcoal, and kerosene. They discovered that people who cook with polluting fuels were more likely to experience depression than those who cook with clean fuels like LPG or electricity. Similarly, evidence from a separate study by Pihui Liu and colleagues (2022) found that people who transitioned from cooking with solid fuels to clean fuels were less likely to be diagnosed with depression. These mental health effects were most prominent among women and rural residents, which is unsurprising given that women are predominantly responsible for cooking and disproportionately bear the health burden of cooking with polluting fuels. In short, increasing access to clean cooking solutions may help mitigate the risk of depression.
So, how does cooking with polluting fuels impact people’s mental health?
As suggested by both studies, cooking with dirty fuels could increase the risk for depression due to household air pollution’s impact on brain function. This finding aligns with growing evidence on the relationship between exposure to air pollution and brain health. For example, in 2020, an international panel of experts added air pollution as a major risk factor for dementia. Additionally, scientists have recently highlighted how household air pollution can negatively impact cognition.
In addition, cooking with polluting fuels could indirectly affect mental health through its negative impacts on physical health. Exposure to household air pollution from cooking with polluting fuels contributes to serious health threats, such as heart and lung disease. Poor physical health is closely related to negative mental health outcomes; individuals with a serious medical condition are estimated to be 2-3 times more likely to develop depression than the general population. Therefore, the burden of physical health issues caused by household air pollution could contribute to a negative mental health reaction.
Earlier this year, Pihui Liu and colleagues (2022) discovered that individuals, especially women, who switched from using polluting cooking fuels to clean fuels engaged in more social activity and were more productive. Doctors have commonly prescribed physical activity to combat depression as there is a strong association between exercise and mental health, so this link may be relevant. The women who transitioned to clean cooking fuels likely engaged in more social and productive activities because of the gendered time savings unlocked by clean cooking. Women who switch to clean cooking fuels save time on fuel collection, preparation, and cooking, which they can reinvest in activities that improve mental health.
It is well known that mental health disorders can impact the well-being of families and drive immense economic implications. In fact, anxiety and depression cost the global economy $1 trillion per year.
Society benefits from happy and healthy community members, and evidence shows that clean cooking solutions can help achieve this outcome. Since increasing access to clean cooking is a good investment for improving physical and mental health, health-focused impact investors should prioritize helping people transition from polluting to clean fuels. More research is needed to fully understand how different types of cooking fuels influence mental health, but it is clear that clean cooking solutions present a global opportunity to boost well-being and decrease the risk for depression, especially among women.