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How Nature Rewires Your Brain and Reduces Mental Illness Risk

Have you had your daily dose of trees, flowers, and shrubs?  No, I don’t mean in the form of herbal medicine, although there are countless studies supporting the use of herbalism in our daily lives.  I’m referring to spending time communing with nature.  We all know that spending time in nature just feels great but thanks to a new study published in the medical journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, there are more reasons than ever to get outdoors and spend time in nature:  the experience transforms your brain and reduces your risk of mental illness.

Scientists at Stanford University in Stanford, California; the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Sweden; and the Laureate Institute for Brain Research at the School of Community Medicine in Tulsa, Oklahoma set out to understand why the increasing trend to live in cities is linked to an increased risk of mental illness. To do so, they monitored brain activity of individuals who took walks in urban settings compared to those who walked in natural settings.  Additionally, they assessed the individual’s tendency to engage in rumination--a repetitive form of thought focused on negative aspects of the self and a known risk factor for mental illness.

They found that the study participants who took 90-minute walks through nature reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced brain activity in an area of the brain known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex (sgPFC)—an area of the brain in which a high activity has been linked to mental illness.  The participants who took the 90-minute walks in urban settings experienced no difference in rumination or brain activity.

The researchers concluded that “These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.”

I blogged about another study that demonstrated the Healing Power of Trees earlier this year.  In a British study published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning in which researchers found that people who live in more densely forested areas are less likely to be taking anti-depressant medications.  These scientists explored the association between urban greenspaces and mental wellbeing and found that an increased tree density in cities significantly reduces the rate of antidepressant prescribing and use.  After making adjustments for other possible factors, the researchers found that every additional tree per kilometer of street resulted in 1.18 fewer antidepressant prescriptions.  In this study researchers concluded that increasing the number of trees may reduce the incidence of depression.  Now, that’s a prescription I can get on board with.

Considering that more than 50% of the population currently lives in urban areas and the number is expected to jump to 70% by 2050, both of these studies are valuable to understanding the growing incidence of mental illness.  According to the University of Washington 26.2 percent of adult Americans (just over one in four adults) experience a diagnosable mental disorder in a particular year.  According to the US Census Bureau 2014 data that means there are 318,857,056 Americans, of which 76.7% are adults.  That translates into more than 64 million American adults experiencing a mental disorder each year.  But adults aren’t the only ones suffering from mental illness.  The University of Washington indicates that 10% of children have a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year as well.  And, that’s just Americans.  People worldwide suffer from mental illness.

While we may know that nature is good for us and really don’t need scientists to tell us what seems to be obvious, the new research is beneficial for the many people who are at risk for or suffer from mental illness.  The condition can be a complex one but it’s good to know that healing may begin with a simple step…in nature.

For more information about brain health consult my upcoming book 60 Seconds to Boost Your Brain Power:  The 4-Week Plan for a Sharper Mind, Better Memory, and a Healthier Brain.

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