MindCheck Monthly: Nature Deficiency, Effects on your Physical & Mental Health

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Are you feeling like you don’t get enough nature in your life? … You are not alone.  Here we explore health ramifications of society’s lack of exposure to the cues of nature.

MindCheck provides in-depth information on Orthomolecular and Naturopathic approaches to achieving mental and physical health.  This series by Dr. Ray Pataracchia ND is endorsed by the Mindful Network – ‘A Better Future for Children’s Mental Health’.  Here we explore nutrient and lifestyle perspectives on health syndromes that when treated benefit both the body and the mind.

Nature Deficiency: Effects on your Physical & Mental Health

The basic tenant of Naturopathic medicine is to avail of the healing power of Nature (vis medicatrix naturae). 

We can do this by optimizing our health with natural nutritional/naturopathic approaches or by increasing our exposure to nature.  The human body has about fifteen top nutritional/naturopathic syndromes that affect physical and mental health.

Here we define a nature deficiency/deficit as a lack of exposure or interaction to our natural world which includes our exposure to the land, sea, climate, plants, animals, and fellow humans.

The health effects of nature deficiency are not researched extensively but there are indications that our physical and mental well-being are negatively impacted by our lack of exposure to nature.  For example, there is evidence that this deficit is associated with a greater likelihood of behavior problems (ADD) in kids.

Nature Deficiency Examples

Examples of nature deficits in on our lives are found when we consider the influence of:

#1) industrialized society

#2) electronic media

#3) conservationist/environmental organization education

#4) exercise/work habits.

Industrialization and Nature Deficiency

Industrialized society keeps us indoors more and less dependent on outdoor activities where we might get out and experience nature. Our ancestors had more food related tasks that brought them into contact with nature; for example, raising livestock to obtain meat or eggs, or working in the garden to obtain vegetables.   Our ancestors also had more shelter related tasks that brought them into contact with nature; for example, collecting wood for heat, or building their house.  Our ancestors also had more transportation related tasks that brought them into contact with nature; for example, walking to work or school.  I’m not endorsing that we do exactly what our ancestors did but there is a good argument here for maintaining balance.

Natural Solution#1: The BodyMindLink

Get involved in activities at home that allow you to be less reliant on industrialized food, shelter, and transportation.  Shop on the outside of the grocery store where there are fresher non-processed food items. Make a garden with staple herbs and vegetables that everyone in the family enjoys.  Take part in hands on building activities with wood; fabricating things out of wood can be therapeutic.  Walk when possible to and from wherever you are going.  Taking part in more natural activities often requires more effort and the physical activity can directly help your physical and mental health.  There is great opportunity here to ground our kids with basic life skills that are not taught in school.

‘Electronic Detachment’: A Nature Deficiency Syndrome

Children today often miss out on a solid exposure to the natural environment.  The electronic media focus of our kids is forcing them into a ‘de-natured’ state of un-health.

Electronic media is all-consuming sensory lure to many kids.  Electronic media effectively reduces 1) the number of natural environment experiences and 2) the number of experiences that are unstructured.

Unstructured play in nature can take the form of making a fort in the woods or a nearby field or lot, making a dam to block a stream, digging holes in the sand, picking flowers, climbing a tree, touching plant life, building an igloo, or interacting with animals, fish, and insects.

These sensory experiences are developmental experiences (involving brain cell pruning) that help build insight, ownership of our place in the world, and a foundational connection of oneself to the world.

In this context, nature deficiency can be defined as a lack of intimacy with nature that effectively separates us from recognizing our place in the world.

Excessive electronic media exposure can cause stress at home, work, or school.  This is the topic of a previous blog on stress reduction at work and play where we show peer-reviewed journal examples of how electronic media is associated with and can influence or worsen conditions/symptoms of poor health, poor well-being, depression, anxiety, ADHD, stress, insomnia, and cardiovascular disease. 

Natural Solution#2: The BodyMindLink

Take part in unstructured play with your children and encourage them to get out and get dirty and involved in unstructured activities/play.  Encourage book reading.

Reduce screen time and remember to “unplug yourself” daily and explore and rely on real physical, social, and emotional cues.

Conservationist/Environmental Organization Education

Well intentioned environmental organizations and conservationists rightly inculcate in our youth the need take part in activities that resolve environmental crisis.  But the ‘saving the world’ pitch –on species extinction, pollution effects, rain forest destruction- has serious overtones  and many educators are now wondering if the primary focus of our children’s attention should not rather be ‘experiencing the joy of nature’.

Regarding ‘experiencing the joy of nature’: studies show a change for the better in terms of mental health when we are more in touch with plant life or more involved in outdoor recreational activity.

One study for example shows the advantage of regular outdoor activity for schizophrenics involved in group adventure and recreation activities (Voruganti LN1, Whatham J, Bard E, Parker G, Babbey C, Ryan J, Lee S, MacCrimmon DJ. Going beyond: An adventure and recreation-based group intervention promotes well-being and weight loss in schizophrenia. Can J Psychiatry. 2006 Aug;51(9):575-80). These individuals noted better well-being, weight loss, self-esteem, and global functioning.   Another study showed emotional, psychological, and social improvements in chronic schizophrenics in a horticulture program; here participants improved in terms of interpersonal sensitivity, reducing depression and anxiety, improving self-concept and identity (Son, KC, et al. Effect of horticultural therapy on the changes of self-esteem and sociality of individuals with chronic schizophrenia. Acta Hortic 2004; 639:185–91).  Based on another study, it may be that the exposure to the GREEN of nature may be an important aspect of horticulture therapy; this study showed a link between horticultural green cues and the ‘normalization’ of brain waves in schizophrenia (Son, K, et al. Effects of visual recognition of green plants on the changes of EEG inpatients with schizophrenia. Acta Hortic 2004; 639:193–99).

Other non-lifestyle nutritional/naturopathic approaches for treating schizophrenia are well considered an important part of a treatment for this debilitating condition.

Natural Solution#3: The BodyMindLink

You can experience nature in any way that you deem appropriate.  It’s entirely up to you, whatever feels right.  Take part in horticulture or wilderness activities/events or find ways to do things outdoors, in and around your neighborhood.  Kids, families and all adults should expose themselves to nature at every chance they can get. Parents need to slow the pace down and spend quality time with their children.

Exercise & Work Habits

The more we get outdoors the more exercise we get and the better our cardio- and cerebro- vascular health.  By doing outdoor activities or chores we get exercise but this may be difficult for those that work in non-physical desk-job atmospheres.

Natural Solution#4: The BodyMindLink

You can reduce any sedentary work scenarios at home by getting off that couch and involved in activities that revolve around nature.  For example, outdoors chores, or hobbies (e.g. kiting) that are interactive with nature (wood working, gardening, home building projects, etcetera).  Outdoor sports such as sailing, mountain biking, skiing, fishing, or running can be a great way to experience the outdoors.  At work we can get up often rather than sitting, take regular breaks outdoors, and right when we get home, de-stress by going on a brisk walk (perhaps with your dog).

Recommended Reading

Your Brain On Nature: The Science of Nature’s Influence on Your Health, Happiness and Vitality by Eva M. Selhub, MD and Alan C. Logan, ND (April 2012).