Embrace the Outdoors – Nature’s cure for stress-induced ailments


Today screen-addicted Americans are more stressed out and distracted than ever.  And guess what – there is no app for that.  But there is an easy cure, which is simply to get outdoors.  Researchers are backing up the not-surprising theory that nature can have positive health benefits, like lowering blood pressure, lessening depression, beating back stress, and there is even some evidence that exposure to nature can help prevent cancer.  Interacting with the outdoors can affect the developing minds of youth by improving behavior and emotional control.  And a growing amount of scientific literature suggests that spending time outside can enhance attention and memory.

In Japan, the government has funded 4 million dollars for “forest-bathing.” Forest-bathing is being implemented for the primary purpose of reducing karoshi: death by overwork.  This work related stress may help account for why Japan has the third-highest rate of suicide in the developed world (after South Korea and Hungry).  It is no wonder that Japan’s scientists are in the vanguard of knowing how green spaces soothe the body and mind.  Scientists are measuring what is actually happening to our cells and neurons on a molecular level.  The nonstop engagement in activities such as streaming programs on the internet, texting, and instagrams appears to change how the brain processes information and in some cases even changes the brain itself.

One alarming study of internet-addicted Chinese teenagers found signs of “abnormal white matter structure” – atrophy of concentrated connective tissue – in areas of the brain involved with behavior and emotional control.  The result is that teenagers who spend all their time on the internet can have stunted social skills and greater behavioral problems.

A study at one of the Japanese universities found that a walk in the forest as compared to a walk in an urban area yielded a 12.4% decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, 7% decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, a 1.4% decrease in blood pressure and a 5.8% decrease in heart rate.  These simple indicators show that stressful states can be relieved by forest therapy.  Cortisol levels are important because chronically high levels and blood pressure are more prone to heart disease and depression.

A study of an outward bound program consisting of three days in the wilderness resulted in participants improving their scores on tests of creativity by 50%.  The researcher was curious if a one day trip to a suburban park would have a similar effect.  It did, boosting the level of both natural killer cells and anticancer proteins for at least seven days afterward.

What was going on? The researcher suspected that trees were important.  Specifically, he wondered if NK cells are affected by “aromatic volatile substances”, otherwise known as scents, sometimes called phytoncides.  These are pinenes, limonenes, many other trees, and other aerosols emitted by evergreens and many other trees.  Since the mid-1990s researchers have been studying pinene for its antimicrobial properties and limonene, which is given off by citrus and other trees, as possible tumor suppressor in cancer patients.

Looking back at our roots as hunter-gatherers and later as farmers we were exposed to a broad range of microbes (including gut flora and probiotics to bacteria and parasites) which play an important part in regulating our immune systems.  And according to hygiene hypothesis, a theory held by many immunologists, our modern estrangement from these organisms may be contributing to an explosion in allergies, asthma, and other serious illness.

One study in Finland found that teenagers living near forests and farms had a different composition of microbes on their skin than their counter-parts in built-up areas.  Rural kids showed higher levels of a blood marker of immune-system robustness and significantly lower incidences of allergies.  The correlation indicates that contact with the natural habitat is good for humans.  Go hike at Galena Creek Visitor Center, sign up your kids for outdoor, nature-based summer camps, and connect yourself to your local forests where you can find a cure for many stress-induced ailments.

Source: Galena Times

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