This week on Health Bite, I talked about the benefits of hanging out with nature, or treating yourself to a walk in the greenery, for your health. I also shared the different proven effects of nature on our physical and mental well-being and the difference between constantly being in an urban setting for work and giving yourself some time with nature once in a while.
The Magic of Green: How Nature has Helped Emily’s Physical and Mental Well-Being
So, today I was out on my usual morning run. It was dewy out and I passed through a favorite spot where there are abundant eucalyptus trees. I took a deep breath and felt this immediate sense of ease that I feel every time I hit that spot in my run and it got me thinking about nature therapy.
I researched the impact of nature on our health and well-being for my book, Hungry for More and in it I share the story of a patient named Emily. Emily who had grew up in the Utah mountains and was now in Los Angeles working in a corporate office, under bright fluorescent lights- you know how that goes.
Things were going really well for Emily, personally and professionally. She was doing great in her job until she developed this constellation of, somewhat, random symptoms. She had weight change- weight loss actually, gastrointestinal upset, nausea, reflux, and headaches. She started to see different doctors who gave her different prescriptions and different pills, none of which really helped. By the time Emily came to see me, it was so unclear as to what was going on. What was the root cause of all these symptoms? Were there multiple things going on? Or was there one thing going on? And what about the pills? How much of her symptoms were related to side effects from these medications?
So, Emily and I began on this journey of peeling back the layers and realized that at the core of her struggle was longing for nature. She had been raised in the mountains and her jobs during her time as a student were always based in the mountains. She was a ski instructor, went hiking, and had been raised among nature. She was not used to being sedentary and under fluorescent lights day in and day out. Nature does have an impact not only on our physical well-being but in the case of Emily, for example, on our emotional and spiritual well-being as well.
Looking Through the Screen: The Amazing Effects of Videos of Nature Towards a Person’s Health and Mind
Did you know even videos of nature can impact your physical and mental health?
In one study I reviewed, individuals were examined while watching nature videos and only the physical impact of nature was monitored. The study showed that while people were viewing these videos, that multiple markers of physiologic stress were reduced, including a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and skin temperature. Another interesting find was that heart rate variability had increased, which is a marker of the health of the parasympathetic nervous system (our rest and relaxation part of our nervous system). So this study showed that merely watching a video about nature or of nature reduced all these variables of the parasympathetic nervous system in very concrete kind of tangible ways.
Take a Walk in the Park: How does Nature Affect Us Psychologically
Studies have, of course, have shown that spending time in nature has psychological benefits. Greater interactions with nature are associated with a reduced incidence of depression, anxiety, psychological stress, and being exposed to nature has also been shown to enhance cognition, focus, productivity, and leads to better attention and better work output in general.
One study that looked at children who had ADHD, showed that those who took a 20-minute walk in nature performed better on cognitive testing, as compared to those who walked in urban settings that were filled with buildings, for example.
In another study, college students were given a range of cognitive tests before and after a 15-minute walk either in a park or in an urban setting. They found that those students who took a walk in the park had significant improvement in the scores of their cognitive testing, as compared to those who walked in the urban setting.
So just like the ADHD study, it showed that walking in a setting of nature, improved focus and cognition as compared to walking in an urban setting.
We know already that exercise and activity, for example, improved mood and cognition. And in these studies, they’re showing that just the place in which they walk has an impact on cognitive function. It’s pretty impressive. The kind of physical effects of being in nature, and these studies, for me, are really mind-blowing.
What’s In It For Me: Why should I care more about Nature?
Spending time in nature has been shown to reduce cardiometabolic disease, cardiometabolic mortality, and overall mortality. In one large meta-analysis, people who had greater green space exposure had lower blood pressure, reduced incidence of diabetes, reduced cardiovascular and, all-cause mortality.
The study also found that stroke, hypertension, asthma, and again, heart disease were reduced in all subjects who had greater exposure to nature. Amazing, right?!
I prescribed aspirin, statins, and antihypertensives (blood pressure medication) to achieve this kind of outcome, and now we have data to support that nature therapy really can result in the same or similar hard endpoints. Taken together, these studies clearly demonstrate the far-reaching and positive impact of nature on all aspects of our physical, emotional, and psychological well-being.
So today’s Health Bite or prescription is to take time in nature. It is healing. It is therapeutic. And for my patient, Emily, and as the literature supports, it can be life-saving.
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