A couple of blog posts ago I discussed the huge problem of mental illness (“The Invisible Pandemic”). I pointed out that we still don’t know how mental illness is caused which put a severe limit on what we can currently do to help people suffering from it.
But we do know something that can help, although as usual there are constraints here too. That something is getting people to walk in natural environments with lots of trees and vegetation. There have been numerous studies showing this; e.g. see here and this area have been nicely summed up by the Harvard School of Public health in its Natural Environments Initiative.
What this Initiative’s major report demonstrates conclusively is that walking in nature has a significant and positive effect on the level of mental health. It also, incidentally, shows that living in natural areas reduce mortality. It isn’t just their analysis, but a meta-analysis of numerous studies. In other words, if you have mental health issues, something that can help improve your condition is regular walks in the park, or living in an area with lots of lush vegetation.
And the effect also extends to cognitive performance. There is now good research evidence which shows that exposure to children to green spaces improves cognitive performance.
Of course the idea that communing with nature could improve mental attitude has been knocking for around for a couple of thousand years at least. Jean-Jacques Rousseau had more than a couple of things to say about it as you may recall (notably in his novel “Emile”). It’s just that it’s only recently that humans have deserted green spaces and started to face down the many perils of urban living that we have started to count some of the many costs.
But the latest studies are not just talking about political and human philosophy but real clinical outcomes. So what could be having this powerful impact in alleviating mental illness if we walk in the forest aka commune with nature?
Modern science is throwing up the answer. It turns out that natural vegetation throws off a lot of chemicals. Some of these are in a category called the phytoncides. These are antimicrobial allelochemic volatile organic compounds derived from plants. They are related to phytochemicals, the ones that are associated with good dietary outcomes due to their oxidative nature.
And there’s more. Vegetation also throws off a class of chemicals in the class if the terpenes. These also have medicinal properties. You might be fascinated to know that marijuana also contains high amounts f certain terpenes and these are amongst the chemicals that give marijuana some if its medicinal impacts. So just a word to the wise; walking in nature can also give you a whiff of the good stuff, hence maybe that’s why people can get a natural high just from the activity.
Another way of looking at this is that when you are walking in green spaces you are actually exposed to a natural air freshener comprised of natural medicinal agents. Did you know that of the top 180 prescription drugs, 118 are based on plants? By walking in nature you are taking in a pot-pourri of natural medicines, the vast majority of which we know nothing about.
Although some people might be skeptical, this is one effect that is being attempted in aromatherapy. In other words, odor can have a positive impact on mental health and cognitive performance, providing you have the night odors. A recent study shows that the scent of rosemary actually has a significant impact on cognitive performance.
These findings open up a lot of doors for improving health, especially mental health and cognitive performance. If you are a runner, don’t do it indoors (see my blog post “Are gyms bad for your health?”) Run where there’s plenty of trees and vegetation.
Or if you are not disposed to running, walk there anyhow. If you are stressed, same thing. Bring your kids too; it will help them in multiple ways. If you have older parents or grandparents who have cognitive problems, or even if they don’t, take them along too. It’s going to give them a bit of a cognitive burst.
Is there a business in this? An indoor air freshener based on these natural chemicals? My name for them is neuroceuticals but I’m sure the companies that produce domestic cleaners can think of something more imaginative.
It might sound fanciful, but if there’s anything we can do to help all those suffering from mental health issues, we should do it.