Dr. Lem: Chronic distress releases a toxic brew of hormones and neurotransmitters into the body, keeping it in a state of high alert. Long-term exposure to cortisol, the primary stress hormone, can lead to impaired immune function, diabetes, heart disease, infertility and premature aging. Unmanaged stress makes your mind and body feel like they're running a marathon every day—without the health benefits.
Doc's Talk: What's the connection between stress and time in nature?
Dr. Lem: There are two popular explanations for how green time soothes a stressed brain. The first suggests that humans have a finite capacity for sustained concentration. Busy urban environments make focusing more difficult, causing fatigue and irritability. But nature lets the conscious brain rest, replenishing your powers of attention and lowering anxiety.
Another theory argues that affinity for nature was an evolutionary advantage. Landscapes with vegetation and water were ideal for finding food and avoiding predators, so their inhabitants survived longer and were less stressed. Although today's humans roam cityscapes with blinking stoplights and shiny glass towers, it's unlikely our brains have fully adapted to them.
Research indicates that spending time in nature supercharges the benefits of exercise, a proven stress reliever. I often recommend that my patients seek out green space to optimize their mental and physical wellness.
Doc's Talk: What are some interesting findings on the topic?
Dr. Lem: Some of the most compelling and biologically relevant evidence comes from Japan, where shinrin-yoku or "forest bathing" has long been recognized as an important part of a healthy lifestyle. A recent study showed that adults who spent three days in forests dramatically boosted their levels of cancer-fighting proteins and natural killer cells, reflecting lower stress. Another demonstrated that young men who spent just 15 minutes sitting in the woods instead of the city experienced significant drops in heart rate and salivary cortisol.
Within urban environments, office workers whose windows look out onto trees and flowers consistently report greater job satisfaction and personal welfare. Filling our cities with green space is a population-level intervention that makes all of us happier and healthier.
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