Correcting poor eating habits is among the great health challenges of our time. It is a root cause of death, disability and soaring health care costs and is even linked to diminished military readiness.
Recognizing the growing urgency of the problem, our nation’s policymakers are beginning to act in unison. In January 2018, House lawmakers officially joined the “Food is Medicine” movement by creating a bipartisan working group dedicated to finding innovations in nutrition policy aimed at improving health and reducing diet-related health costs.
It is a further example of how the medical community and those formulating policy are reframing how they look at health and wellness. Also being examined is how mindset and social factors influence physical health.
As an example of this changing approach, it was recently reported in STAT News that scientists are now trying to dissect the pieces that make mental health treatments work. They believe successful treatments can be thought of as a conversation. The brain hears some kind of message, whether it is from a drug or another approach, and the brain responds to alleviate symptoms. Scientists are now trying to listen in on those conversations and “back-translate” them in an effort to figure out how successful treatments actually do work.
In support of such efforts, the nonprofit Wellcome Trust recently announced a $200 million commitment to support more mental health research. The organization hopes the investment will ultimately lead to better treatments for the tens of millions of people across the globe with mental health conditions.
It got me thinking. If food is medicine, then nature certainly is medicine as well, and we ought to do more to recognize it as such.
New research is increasingly demonstrating that we have both a physical and psychological need to be in nature and that disconnection from nature can be bad for our mental health. Australian sustainability professor Glenn Albrecht has even coined the term for it – “psychoterratic.” It describes the psychological trauma caused by a disconnection from nature and is an attempt to create the beginning of a vocabulary to discuss the relationship between mental health and the environment. Currently, there are few concepts in English that address environmentally induced mental distress – or conversely, environmentally enhanced mental health.
According to one new study by researchers at the University of East Anglia in England that analyzed data from 20 countries including the United States, exposure to nature may increase sleep duration, lower stress and reduce the risk of Type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth and high blood pressure. The findings were published in the journal Environmental Research.
“Spending time in nature certainly makes us feel healthier, but until now the impact on our long-term well-being hasn’t been fully understood,” lead author Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett from the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School told Psych Central. For the study, “green space” was defined as open undeveloped land with natural vegetation as well as urban green spaces, which included urban parks and street greenery. At present, the research is unclear as to what exactly is leading to these health benefits.
Perhaps the most well-known example of the health benefits of exposure to nature is the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” first introduced by the Japanese government in 1982. In recent years, Japanese officials have spent nearly $4 million dollars studying the physiological and psychological effects of forest bathing, which means bathing in the forest atmosphere or taking in the forest through our senses – sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch.
Much of the research from Japan suggests that phytoncides, the organic compounds released by trees, might explain the health-boosting properties of forest bathing. It has been found that these antimicrobial oils that protect trees from germs have a host of human health benefits, including boosting mood and immune system function, as well as reducing blood pressure, heart rate, stress, anxiety and depression.
In separate research recently conducted at King’s College London, smartphone-based technology was used to assess in real time the relationship between nature in cities and the momentary mental well-being it generates. The findings of the study suggest that short-term exposure to nature has measurable mental health benefits. These associations were still evident hours after exposure.
One participant in the project told researchers that using the study’s Urban Mind app made her more aware of her surroundings – of seeing trees, hearing birdsong, seeing the sky – and how these affected her state of mind and encouraged her to think hard about what kind of city she wanted to live in.
This also should remind us that the prescription for what ails us might well be a simple fix that is inexpensive and has no negative side effects. There are plenty of ways for you to take in your “nature medicine.” We merely have to make a commitment to do it.
The forest soil is a community of microorganisms. According to naturalists, the more we contact the forest soil, the more we let it infiltrate our systems and the better our chances of maintaining physical and mental wellness. Just digging your fingers in the soil of a potted plant is said to improve mood and boost your immune system.
Add “nature as medicine” to your health and well-being prescription list.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.