Skip to main content

Prevention Talk: Nature nurtures

June 10, 2019 11:56 am Updated: June 10, 2019 12:02 pm

 

Ever wonder why you feel that surge of energy when the sun hits your face or the feeling of tranquility after spending an hour beside a sparkling stream? Is a brisk walk invigorating? Is there a connection between human health, mental, emotional, and physical, and nature? Scientists have wondered about a possible connection too, but they’ve done more than wonder. They’ve researched and found much not so surprising evidence that there are indeed very real connections. After all, we are creatures of planet earth and inextricably connected to it, yet the Center For Disease Control (1) reports that less than 30 percent of American kids get the required 60 minutes of aerobic exercise required for good health. Adults fare even worse. Childhood obesity and diabetes rates have exploded, suicide and depression rates among young and old alike are at an all-time high. And most people spend more time on their mobile devices than at any other activity ignoring the natural environment and its benefits.

If we look at some positive aspects of the relationship between humans and their natural environment we find that our moods and physical health are affected by the amount of sunlight we receive. This phenomenon known as seasonal affect disorder, reduced amounts of sunlight, causes depression in some people. Exposure to sunlight is essential to the body’s ability to produce of Vitamin D which reduces depression and stimulates blood circulation. Vitamin D also increases calcium and phosphorus absorption from food and plays a critical role in skeletal development, immune function and blood cell formation. Five to 15 minutes of midday sun is enough to reap many benefits without causing negative effects.(2) Exposure to sunlight was observed to greatly reduce or eliminate the effects of jaundice in newborns.(3) But that’s not all the environment does for us.

Howard Frumkin (2001) former Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences and Dean at the University of Washington School of Public Health, views the strong human connection to nature as a component of good health. Research confirms his statement that, “People’s nearly universal preference for contact with the natural world — plants, animals, natural landscapes, the sea, and wilderness — suggests that we as a species may find tranquility in certain natural environment and may derive health benefits from them.” Other research (Ullrich, 1984; Kaplan, 1992) shows that post-surgical patients gain health benefits from exposure to views of nature, plants in gardens, interacting with animals and wilderness experiences. Hospitals use garden spaces as respite sites for patients and families. Wilderness experiences have been a part of addiction recovery programs and mental health interventions for decades. In 1981 architect, Ernest Moore, discovered that prisoners assigned to cells with views of rolling landscapes and trees had a significantly lower number of sick call visits compared to those in inside cells.(4)

A 1998 National Gardening survey reported, “that half of the respondents agreed that flowers and plants at theme parks, historic sites, golf courses and restaurants are important to the enjoyment of these places.” Forty percent said being around plants and animals made them feel calmer. Research on recreational activities shows that savanna-like settings evoke feelings of tranquility, peace, or relaxation. Psychometric testing goes even further reporting that people who view savanna settings exhibit a decrease in fear and anger and experience an enhanced positive affect. Improvement in mental alertness, attention, and cognitive performance was also observed. Studies like these prompted the CDC to issue “Tool kits for Improving Community Health Through Parks and Trails.” A 2018 study for the British Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs found growing evidence in the effectiveness of using natural environments as settings for specific health interventions which can also be very cost effective. So, get out there and commune with nature. Greene County has many beautiful habitats with positive side effects to explore. See you on the trail.

1 CDC National Center for Environmental Health https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/pressroom/2014/november_12_2014.html

2 Benefits of Sunlight: A Bright Spot for Human Health https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2290997/ M. Nathaniel Mead National Institute of Environmental Health Science

3 J Perinatol. 2015 Sep;35(9):671-5. doi: 10.1038/jp.2015.56. Epub 2015 Jun 11. Sister Jean Ward, phototherapy, and jaundice: a unique human and photochemical interaction. Maisels MJ1,2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26067472

4 Institute of Medicine (US). Rebuilding the Unity of Health and the Environment: A New Vision of Environmental Health for the 21st Century. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2001. 3, Human Health and the Natural Environment. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK99584/

Reach Helen Exum at helene@twincountyrecoveryservices.org.