Do we need more Vitamin G?

More people in Hong Kong are taking up the fight to keep our natural surroundings just that, natural.  We are standing up to stop the development of un-spoilt land and country parks, under pressure for affordable housing and the baffling claim that the more concrete you pour the better the economy will be.  Nevertheless research is on our side and increasingly confirming what we all intuitively know to be true, that nature can make us well.  Yes we do need more vitamin G (green and natural surrounding) and nature in our lives.

Connections to nature improve mood, cognition and overall health in many ways.  Our brains are naturally tuned to respond to signals from nature and if we could take the headphones off and listen to the sounds of nature around us, we could more clearly hear and feel those signals.

Mindfulness-in-Nature

Practicing mindfulness can bring us to the present moment to totally sense nature, but nature also helps us to be more mindful.  In an environmental mindfulness day with teens recently I asked them to pay attention to the sounds of nature and to pick out those sounds from the other urban noises.  Once attuned to these natural sounds, they spent a few minutes in walking meditation whilst allowing the surrounding sounds to come to them naturally, without seeking them out, simply allowing the sounds to arrive.  Most found that the sounds of nature came to them without effort but with a detail that they do not usually experience in the droning urban sounds they are used to.  This present moment awareness, and being out of automatic pilot mode, is refreshing and demonstrates that with relative ease and presence we can allow nature to influence and calm our mind.

Plenty of research now focuses on the physical and mental health benefits of spending time in green spaces and natural environments.

But, do we really need scientists and researchers to tell us that flowers, trees and chirping birds make us feel good?  well, yes we do, because although it is intuitive to be in nature we, and particularly young people, just aren’t doing it enough.

Recent reports from Ireland indicate that 48% of children spend more time in front of a screen than outdoors, and in the US only 10% of teens spend time outside each day, so I imagine even less spend time in nature.  If these number seems poor for countries with plenty of green spaces and natural environments for young people to access, imagine how bad they must be for Hong Kong, even though we do have beautiful and easily accessibility country parks.

A re-connection with nature and regular access to green spaces, could offer real help for young people facing mental health problems today.

Nature – a mental health prescription

The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician. Paracelsus

Sometimes though, a nudge is needed especially if that physician is prescribing nature.

At a Children’s Hospital in Oakland, California, doctors are taking notice of the emerging data on nature and health and training pediatricians in the outpatient clinic to write prescriptions for young patients and their families to visit green spaces.  The hospital has transformed the clinical space bringing nature indoors with maps to guide families and pictures of local wilderness, which are said to be healing for both the doctors and patients.

Researchers at Stanford University found that taking a walk in a green natural environment can sooth the mind by reducing the rumination of negative thoughts, a known risk factor for mental illness, compared to a walk in an urban environment. There is a strong link between urbanization and increased mental illness, and as it is estimated that 50% of the global population live in urban environments, mental health concerns from the environment are a real problem that young people will face. So the results of this study are important as nature experiences may improve mental well-being, and the accessibility to natural areas in urban settings may be critical for mental health.

Researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School analyzed mental health data from 10,000 people and tracked where they had lived over 18 years. They found that people living near more green space reported less mental distress, even after adjusting for income, education, and employment.

Forest bathing

In Japan and Korea stressed workers have been turning to a therapy called, shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”.  A practice simply involves spending time in forests, bathing in the smells, sights, sounds and texture of the forest.  Since 2004 the Japanese government has funded the study of the beneficial effects of forest bathing allocating 48 official forest therapy trails.  A recent project that followed participants who spent time in 24 of the forests in Japan found lowered blood pressure and reduced cortisol levels.  Now Japanese researchers are taking the forest bathing research further, finding that there are lasting effects of forest bathing resulting in improved immunity which is said to be from the essential oils in the trees, their leaves and flowers.

South Korean’s take forest bathing therapy seriously.  According to this National Geographic article firefighters suffering post-traumatic stress disorder attend a free three-day program sponsored by the local government at Saneum Healing Forest to immerse themselves in nature.  After a morning of hiking, they practice partner yoga, rub lavender massage oil into each other’s forearms, and make delicate dried flower collages.

In Finland the government has also poured significant funding into research that investigates the social, physical and psychological benefits of spending time in nature. “power trails” as they are called encourage walking, mindfulness, and reflection. Signs on them say things like, “Squat down and touch a plant.”

More trees equates to better health

A large study published in 2015 looked at medical records and health survey’s of 31,000 people living in Toronto – a city with a data record of 530,000 trees.  They found that those people living in areas with more trees had improved health and cognitive outcomes.  These results are as simple as saying that an extra 10 trees in a neighborhood block can improve health perception in the same way that is equivalent to an increase of USD10,000 per annum income or being 7 years younger.  The researchers even recommend a city policy prescription, suggesting that is well worth the cost to plant more urban trees.

In Hong Kong we may not have space like Toronto or other cities have but we could follow the lead of urban and densely populated cities like Singapore and build greener high-rise blocks and encourage green roofs.

more vitamin G

Image by Lucas Foglia

The curse of technology

As we explore ways and means to get us away from our screens and more connected to our present moment, we begin to realize how technology controls us and can ruin lives.  Author David Gessner says, “it’s turning us into fast twitch animals, sapping our ability to concentrate for long periods, sapping our ability to appreciate the natural world, sapping our ability to get away from screens.”

As amazing as our brains are they are not tireless three-pound machines and they are easily fatigued. They need to slow down, they need to stop the busyness.  When we slow down and take in beautiful natural surroundings, not only do we feel restored, but our mental performance improves too.

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