by Tayler Milbury
We learn the value of taking care of our physical health at a young age. When we fall and scrape our knee, we learn the importance of a band-aid to stop the bleeding and prevent infection. As we get slightly older, we become more conscious of our nutrition and incorporate more fruits and vegetables into our diet. In school, we take gym and health classes. As adults, we do our best to stay healthy to minimize the number of pills we need to take. But how much effort do we put into our mental health? Despite being aware of our emotions and difficulties in life, we tend to not spend as much time focusing on the activities we can pursue to lower our risk of developing mental illnesses or neurodegenerative diseases. We hear people talk about incorporating walks and a healthy diet into their daily routines to lower the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, but how often do we hear people using physical activity and nutrition to protect themselves from depression or Alzheimer’s disease? What if the same activity could protect both our physical and mental health? What we eat and our level of physical activity can not only improve our physical health but also have positive effects on our brains and therefore our mental health, if we consume the right vitamins and nutrients and engage in specific exercise for a certain amount of time.
Chemical messengers called neurotransmitters allow communication to take place between the cells in our brain. For example, when a cell releases a neurotransmitter, these messengers may tell another cell to increase its function or to slow down. One of the many neurotransmitters in our brains is called serotonin, which plays a role in various functions, such as mood, sleep, and appetite. When it comes to our mood, we often feel elevated when our serotonin levels are high; on the other hand, low levels of serotonin have been linked to depression. What’s interesting is that what we eat can affect the amount of serotonin in our brain. This is because serotonin is made from tryptophan which can be consumed through protein-rich foods like eggs, salmon, turkey, and nuts and seeds. In addition, research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish oil, have improved mood disorders as well. This doesn’t mean that eating certain foods will completely cure a mood disorder; however, we can do what we can to make small changes to support our health.
As we age, areas of our brain, like those involved in attention and memory, are prone to deterioration. Research has provided evidence to suggest that aerobic exercise for a minimum of 30 minutes, three to four times a week, can promote the growth of new brain cells in these areas that are susceptible to neurodegeneration, and therefore can help to protect us against Alzheimer’s disease and other decline in cognition. To learn about the research being done on this topic, check out these TedTalks called The Brain-Changing Benefits of Exercise by Wendy Suzuki and Snack on Exercise: Boost Your Mind, Body and Mood by Lauren Parsons. Focusing on the more immediate effects of exercise, research has indicated that a single workout can quickly boost your mood, as well as attention and reaction time, by releasing dopamine and serotonin.
At times, starting a new exercise regimen or changing the foods we eat can seem like daunting tasks, but we don’t have to go to the extreme at the beginning to improve our health. Instead, gradually making small, consistent changes in your daily routine can pay off. This could mean that you take the stairs instead of an elevator or put on some music and dance while folding laundry. When it comes to food, shift your focus away from counting calories and instead examine the types and amounts of vitamins and nutrients you are getting from what you eat throughout the day. Food fuels our bodies, so we want to make sure we’re giving ourselves what we need.
TEDx Talks. (2020, April 15). Feed Your Mental Health | Drew Ramsay [Video}. YouTube. https://youtu.be/BbLFsQubdtw
by Tayler Milbury
How often do you find yourself taking a stroll through your community’s parks and trails or tending to indoor plants or outdoor gardens? As children, most often we were out the front door when the sun came up and reluctantly brought back inside for dinner and bedtime. Our childhood memories consist largely of hide-and-go-seek outdoors, treehouses, sidewalk chalk, snow forts, swimming, and more; so why, as teenagers and adults, do we now spend most of our day indoors? Our job, school, and household chores likely play a large part, but with the emerging research on the mental health benefits of nature, perhaps we should be challenging ourselves to find more time in the day to spend outside, or at the very least, bring nature inside to us.
During a global pandemic, it is more important than ever to be regularly checking in on our mental health and well-being. Like plants, humans have basic needs. Eating that extra serving of veggies, walking around the yard, and getting dressed in the morning can go a long way in improving our self-esteem, mood, and overall well-being. But sometimes, when we are feeling down, our normal habits can seem like large, daunting tasks – if you have felt like this during the Covid-19 pandemic, you’re not alone. Before we delve into the benefits of nature to our mental health, let’s talk a bit about mental health and emotions in general.
Just like everyone has physical health, we all have mental health too. We also all have anxiety. Anxiety is a term we often hear in everyday conversation; there is a difference, however, between the emotion of anxiety and an anxiety disorder. We all have the emotion of anxiety; we don’t all have an anxiety disorder, which is when the frequency and intensity in which one experiences the emotion of anxiety become disordered and disrupt many aspects of one’s life. It is normal for us all to experience anxiety from time to time; after all, it makes us aware of potential threats or danger which allows us to respond accordingly to protect ourselves. So, in the midst of a global pandemic, when you can’t see family and friends, when people are wearing masks in stores, when social media and the news are dominated by the topic of Covid-19, it is normal to feel anxious.
So how can nature help? Data from a 2013/2014 health and behaviour study on children suggests that spending time outdoors can serve as a protective factor for mental health. The study provided evidence that spending at least 30 minutes outside a week was associated with a 24% decrease in the occurrence of mental health symptoms in adolescent girls. But even more fascinating, is that our perception of the importance of spending time in, and being connected to, nature can influence the benefits to our mental health. This means that if we rank feeling connected to nature as being highly important in our lives, we are more likely to yield greater benefits in regard to our well-being. Findings from other studies support this – research suggests that brief exposure to nature can reduce stress and blood pressure, as well as increase self-esteem, cognitive functioning, and emotional well-being. In addition to this, an Australian self-report survey found an association between long visits to green spaces and lower rates of depression.
The use of nature to improve mental health is not a new concept. In the mid-20th century, hospitals often used gardening to improve the well-being of their patients. Gardening is a meaningful activity that often provides individuals with a state of tranquility and the ability to become grounded, both of which can lessen the symptoms of feeling anxious. Gardening, whether outdoors or indoors, teaches us to accept and let go of things we cannot control – such as the weather, rain, and temperature, all of which impact the growth of a plant. We learn through gardening to focus on growth and progress rather than immediate results; patience is a virtue. Taking care of a plant can also teach us about individuality and uniqueness; each kind of plant is different and has different needs, just like humans.
The next time you are feeling stressed, anxious, or just not like your usual self, go outside and take notice of you how feel after spending some time in nature. With a few months left of summer, now is a great time to start a garden, check out your local park, or even visit your childhood days and pick up some chalk; when the winter months arrive, bring nature inside to you by getting an indoor plant or two.
10 Mental Health Benefits of Gardening https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/think-act-be/201906/10-mental-health-benefits-gardening?eml
McMahan, E. A., & Estes, D. (2015). The Effect of Contact With Natural Environments on Positive and Negative Affect: A Meta- Analysis. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 10 (6). http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2014.994224
Sempik, J. (2010). Green care and mental health: Gardening and farming as health and social care. Mental Health and Social Inclusion, 14(3), 15-22. doi: http://dx.doi.org.proxy.hil.unb.ca/10.5042/mhsi.2010.0440
Shanahan, D., Bush, R., Gaston, K. et al. Health Benefits from Nature Experiences Depend on Dose. Sci Rep 6, 28551 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep28551
Why Connecting With Nature Elevates Your Mental Health