Nature and Mental Health - Naturopathic Perspectives
The diagnosis of mental-health disorders in Canada are increasing in number. One in five Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime. Almost everyone will be affected by a mental-health disorder—either experiencing a mental-health concern themselves or having someone in their life struggle. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in both men and women from adolescence to middle age. The economic cost of mental illness in Canada to the health-care system is estimated to be at least $51 billion per year—including health-care costs, lost productivity, and reductions in health-related quality of life.
These statistics are scary. There is a complex interplay of factors that contribute to one’s mental health, including genetics, biological, personality, and environmental factors. It is the time to explore different treatment options to help people who are suffering. The simpler and more effective the treatment, the easier and faster mental health can be supported and treated.
Several recent studies have shown that being immersed in nature can be extremely beneficial to our mental health. Nature can be experienced in the wilderness and also in parks, urban green spaces, and/or gardens. In this article we will outline different reasons why nature is so beneficial to our mental health, and why this should be explored as a part of the treatment plan for those suffering with severe mental-health conditions.
Physical Activity in Nature
Studies have shown that exercise is extremely beneficial to our mental health. There is no pill that can do what exercise can do for our psyche. Physical activity increases mood, quality of life, self-esteem, sleep, and cognitive functioning. Physical activity has been found to improve mental-health conditions, particularly anxiety, depression, and general wellbeing.
A recent Stanford-led study found that exercising in nature versus a busy urban area could contribute to a lower risk of depression. Participants went for a walk in either a rural grassy area or on an urban road with heavy traffic. After the walk, the researchers examined the part of the brain responsible for rumination and obsessive thought. They found that those who walked in the rural area had a decrease in the activity in this part of the brain, while those walking in the urban setting had no change.
This study shows us that where we exercise can have an effect on our mental health. By changing the environment where we exercise, we can change the activity of our brain.
Nature and Attention
A University of Michigan psychology research study found that memory performance and attention spans improved 20 percent after people spent an hour interacting with nature. The same benefits were found whether it was a beautiful sunny day or a cold winter night. It was found that viewing pictures of nature can even help improve memory and attention. Nature has an impact on our mood, and this study shows that it also affects the way we pay attention and our ability to memorize. It is important to ensure that those in school have adequate exposure to nature while learning and developing, especially those suffering with ADHD and other attention disorders.
An estimated one billion people worldwide have a vitamin D deficiency or insufficiency. This deficiency is so common that in Ontario, doctors are no longer able to order OHIP-covered vitamin D testing routinely, since it is assumed that all people will have a deficiency. Vitamin D can be obtained from the sun, through diet, or by supplementation. Fifty to ninety percent of vitamin D is produced by sunshine exposure, while the rest comes from the diet. Deficiency of vitamin D can lead to a number of negative health effects including obesity, diabetes, hypertension, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression.
Studies have shown a correlation between low vitamin D levels and depression. To prevent vitamin D deficiency, one should spend 15–20 minutes daily in the sunshine with 40% of the skin surface exposed. Being outside in nature can decrease depression, and the vitamin D produced through sunlight may be one of the reasons why.
A Dutch study shows that the relationship of stressful life events with number of health complaints and perceived general health were significantly moderated by the amount of green space in a 3‑km radius of home. Respondents with a high amount of green space nearby were less affected by experiencing a stressful life event than respondents with a low amount of green space in this radius. The same pattern was observed for patients’ feelings about their own mental health; patients felt better when they lived in an area surrounded by more green space.
How to Increase the Amount of Time you Spend in Nature
In order to reap the benefits of nature, we must strive to get outdoors each and every day—even if it’s only for 10–15 minutes. Outdoor time needs to become a priority and a part of our daily routine. Some ways to increase your exposure to the outdoors are:
- Walk or bike to and from work
- Go for a walk to a local park on your lunch break
- If you have a dog, walk him/her daily
- Wake up 15 minutes earlier and spend this time walking outside
- Try a new winter sport and make it a hobby (skiing, ice skating, sledding, snowshoeing…)
- Instead of exercising at a gym, take your exercise routine outside
- Walk instead of drive whenever possible
- Limit screen time—this will open up the amount of time you have to get outside!
- If you live in an urban area, do some research to find local parks or hiking trails, and make an effort to visit these areas daily.
As discussed, nature has many positive effects on mental health. Exercising in a rural area has more positive effects on mental health compared to urban areas. Nature increases memory acquisition and attention, increases vitamin D levels (our happy vitamin), and has the ability to heal.