Guru Magazine - - Con­tents -

“Stop be­ing such a couch potato and go out­side!” is how we would say it. Au­tumn Sar­tain, Na­ture Guru, puts it far more diplo­mat­i­cally. On page 7, she gives so many rea­sons to get out­doors that you’ll be drop-kick­ing your TV into the back yard.

Mod­ern liv­ing can seem a bit odd some­times. Lots of us take a car to work, spend our day in­side, drive home, then un­wind in front of a TV. But Na­ture Guru, Au­tumn Sar­tain, tells us that by stay­ing in­doors we are miss­ing out. Let her re­veal how na­ture can change you for good… Hu­man be­ings – you and I – come from a long line of ances­tors who bred, sur­vived and flour­ished on this planet, Earth. It’s a pretty ob­vi­ous thing to say, but just think about it for a minute: for over two mil­lion years, hu­mans have been in­flu­enced by the plants, an­i­mals and sur­round­ings of this world. Those two mil­lion years have shaped us to be­come what we are to­day. That’s a long time – and I bet you can’t imag­ine the num­ber of peo­ple that rep­re­sents. I know I can’t. Be­ing so ut­terly shaped by the nat­u­ral world, it’s in­ter­est­ing to me that so many of us now spend so lit­tle time out­side. Ac­cord­ing to a 2010 Re­port on Amer­i­can Con­sumers pub­lished by the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, San Diego, Amer­i­cans spend an av­er­age of 12 hours a day ab­sorb­ing in­for­ma­tion, most of which is from elec­tronic sources such as tele­vi­sion and the In­ter­net, but also tex­ting, lis­ten­ing to mu­sic and play­ing games. We are now spend­ing 25% less time pur­su­ing na­ture-based recre­ations such as camp­ing and vis­it­ing na­tional parks than we did in 1987. It’s our in­creas­ing pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with en­ter­tain­ment me­dia that is a pri­mary cause for this change. Fear is also one of the main fac­tors mak­ing par­ents hap­pier if their chil­dren play in­doors. But whether it’s en­ter­tain­ment or fear (or both), the re­sults aren’t pretty: a study of Bri­tish school­child­ren showed they were much bet­ter at iden­ti­fy­ing Poké­mon char­ac­ters than com­mon an­i­mals like rab­bits and bee­tles. It is only now that science is fi­nally catch­ing up with what we all know on some gut level – that be­ing out­side is good for us. What is per­haps un­ex­pected from this new wave of re­search is how be­ing in na­ture in­flu­ences our phys­i­cal bod­ies and our brains. For ex­am­ple, show­ing peo­ple na­ture scenes, as op­posed to city scenes, makes them more giv­ing to oth­ers and less con­cerned with self­ish goals. Road rage can be re­duced by the amount of veg­e­ta­tion vis­i­ble along a high­way. Out­door class­rooms im­prove math­e­mat­ics and science scores. Views of veg­e­ta­tion have also been linked to lower anger lev­els, less im­pul­sive be­hav­ior, and shorter hos­pi­tal stays.

Im­pres­sively, just a twenty-minute walk in na­ture im­proves at­ten­tion scores for chil­dren di­ag­nosed with ADHD (At­ten­tion De­fi­cient Hy­per­ac­tiv­ity Dis­or­der). Re­mark­ably, one re­search study found that be­havioural im­prove­ments were com­pa­ra­ble with what top-sell­ing ADHD drugs claim to pro­vide.

Shin­ing a light on hap­pi­ness

As you may or may not know, sero­tonin is a chem­i­cal in our brains that helps us feel happy (with drugs such as Prozac ar­ti­fi­cially el­e­vat­ing the lev­els of this chem­i­cal our bod­ies re­lease). In 2002, re­searchers in Aus­tralia dis­cov­ered that sero­tonin pro­duc­tion is di­rectly re­lated to the amount of sun­light in a day. The blue light of the sky is our par­tic­u­lar favourite: ex­po­sure to this hue (with a wave­length of about 470 nm) helps to re­lieve de­pres­sion and the ‘win­ter blues’ ( sea­sonal af­fec­tive dis­or­der). Win­ter brings the low­est level of this happy blue light and so it’s even more im­por­tant to spend time out­doors dur­ing those short days. If you hap­pen to live at lat­i­tudes where you lit­er­ally get no light in the win­ter, or not enough, then you are at a higher risk of de­pres­sion. Thank­fully, ther­a­peu­tic light ‘boxes’ can help: light ther­apy has been shown to re­duce de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety and even eat­ing dis­or­ders. Light is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant in the morn­ing, so con­sider cel­e­brat­ing the morn­ing by go­ing out­side – the sun­light should help you think, feel more alert and happy, lower your anx­i­ety and even help your sleep (later on, of course). The same prin­ci­ples can ap­ply even when you can’t get out­side: one set of re­searchers craftily changed the lights on two dif­fer­ent floors in an of­fice build­ing and as­sessed how the of­fice work­ers felt. For four weeks, one floor had only white light, and the other had blue-en­riched white light. The re­sults were pretty amaz­ing. With the blue-en­riched light, em­ploy­ees were in a bet­ter mood, per­formed bet­ter at their jobs, felt more alert, and were less ir­ri­ta­ble and tired than the other group. Nat­u­ral light is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly im­por­tant as we all are spend­ing more and more time in­doors. One prob­lem with look­ing at our com­put­ers all day, in­stead of be­ing out­side, is that our body can be­come con­fused about when to be alert and when to sleep. We each have a cir­ca­dian rhythm – an in­ter­nal body clock – that con­trols when we wake and when we sleep. A hor­mone called mela­tonin be­comes ac­tive when it’s dark, get­ting our body and mind ready for sleep. If we spend our day in of­fice cu­bi­cles then we de­prive our­selves of the ben­e­fits of nat­u­ral light. And then, at night, when we fill our eyes with light from su­per-bright TV screens, our mela­tonin is sup­pressed – re­ally mess­ing with our sleep. But more than this, a dis­turbed sleep-wake cy­cle can con­trib­ute to de­pres­sion, im­mune prob­lems, obe­sity, at­ten­tion deficit dis­or­der and more.

Mak­ing sense of the scents

When you walk into a for­est, you have to ad­mit that it smells nice. Some­times you prob­a­bly even take a deep breath, smile, and say “ahhh!” (That can’t just be me, right?) Ap­pre­ci­at­ing a pleas­ant smell is a nice lit­tle side ef­fect of be­ing out­doors, but there’s a lot more to scents than just that. It turns out that our noses are por­tals to our brains (even though they may seem so use­less com­pared to, say, a dog’s nose). Tiny air­borne sub­stances, or va­pors, get into our nos­trils, en­ter our brains and then cir­cu­late through­out our body. You don’t even have to be able to ‘smell’ them in the tra­di­tional sense. Plants give off tiny plant aro­matic par­ti­cles called ‘phy­ton­cides’ that can have vary­ing ef­fects, de­pend­ing on which ones you come into con­tact with. Trees, for ex­am­ple, give off phy­ton­cides that can pro­mote im­mune func­tion, lower stress hor­mones and in­duce re­lax­ation. What’s even more amaz­ing is that the pos­i­tive ef­fects don’t wear off right away. One pub­lished study demon­strated that af­ter a week­end walk­ing in the woods, the changes are still mea­sur­able a month later. And the ben­e­fits aren’t lim­ited to trees. While aro­mather­a­pists have been crit­i­cised for over­stat­ing their claims, there is nev­er­the­less ev­i­dence to show that other plant oil va­pors can in­flu­ence body and mind – even in­creas­ing our happy friend, sero­tonin. Rose­mary may well serve as an aid to mem­ory, while laven­der has the op­po­site ef­fect on mem­ory and at­ten­tion but is great for re­lax­ation. Ex­per­i­ments have also shown that pep­per­mint boosts phys­i­cal and men­tal per­for­mance in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions and has been shown to lower anx­i­ety for those driv­ing for ex­tended pe­ri­ods of time. Plants not only give off sooth­ing va­pors, they also help clean up the air we breathe at work and home. The anal­y­sis of in­door air has shown some scary things: of­fice air fre­quently con­tains pol­lu­tants at lev­els be­yond what ex­perts deem healthy. Such air­borne con­tam­i­nants in­clude sul­phur diox­ide, ni­tro­gen diox­ide, car­bon diox­ide and so-called ‘ volatile or­ganic com­pounds’. Our com­put­ers are a ma­jor source of in­door air pol­lu­tion, giv­ing off some volatile com­pounds, some of which have been shown ex­per­i­men­tally to im­pair our think­ing abil­ity and make us more likely to make mis­takes. But don’t de­spair! Re­searchers from the Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, Sydney have dis­cov­ered what they call a “por­ta­ble, flex­i­ble, at­trac­tive, low-cost tech­nol­ogy”. Or pot­ted plants to you and me. Of­fice plants can re­move up to 75% or more of in­door volatile or­ganic com­pound loads. So, if you spend a lot of your time in­side, con­sider bring­ing some na­ture in with you. They’ll make even your apart­ment or of­fice look nice too.

Take a break from think­ing so hard!

Crunching num­bers all day, or do­ing some other task that re­quires long hours of forced, fo­cused at­ten­tion, can cause our minds to get tired. Re­searchers call this ‘cog­ni­tive fa­tigue’; it can cause us to make more er­rors and have trou­ble fil­ter­ing through ir­rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion, lead­ing us to be more dis­tracted. Long pe­ri­ods of ‘cog­ni­tive fa­tigue’ may even­tu­ally con­trib­ute to burn-out, de­pres­sion, and anx­i­ety. And this is where Na­ture can help (again). In 2011, re­searchers in South Korea tested univer­sity stu­dents’ men­tal abil­i­ties be­fore and af­ter a walk, ei­ther through a lush park or through a city. They found that by tak­ing a 50-minute walk through a tree-lined park, the stu­dents per­formed bet­ter on sub­se­quent tests

when com­pared to the city-walk­ers. Un­forced at­ten­tion on na­ture, and the fas­ci­na­tion that comes with look­ing at the nat­u­ral world, was enough to re­fresh the tired mind. Not sur­pris­ingly then, get­ting out and walk­ing in a for­est set­ting is also great for us. The For­est Agency of Ja­pan be­gan pro­mot­ing an ini­tia­tive in 1982 called Shin­rin-Yoku, or ‘for­est bathing’. This pro­gram is meant to help stressed-out city peo­ple (and any­one else in­ter­ested) soak up the ef­fects of na­ture by get­ting them to spend time in the for­est. Since it started, psy­cho­log­i­cal and phys­i­o­log­i­cal stud­ies on over 1,000 adults have shown the ben­e­fits: lower lev­els of stress hor­mones, blood pres­sure, heart rate, de­pres­sion and anger. They also found im­proved sleep and a greater feel­ing of live­li­ness.

The great out­doors awaits

There are end­less vari­a­tions of out­door ad­ven­tur­ing, from gar­den­ing to scal­ing moun­tains to walk­ing in your lo­cal park. If you are like Matt Lins­dell, our Fit­ness Guru, and love to ex­er­cise, you’ll be happy to know that sim­ply run­ning out­doors re­duces anger, fa­tigue, and anx­ious thoughts more than run­ning on a tread­mill. Bet­ter than that, out­door ex­er­cise has been shown to in­crease the num­ber of pos­i­tive thoughts a per­son has. Which­ever route of out­door ex­plo­ration you choose, it ap­pears con­clu­sive that na­ture is ben­e­fi­cial to health and hap­pi­ness. So breathe in the air, bring some na­ture in­side, and of course, romp through the wilds and get some dirt un­der those fin­ger­nails.

Find out more:

The book Your Brain on Na­ture by Drs. Eva Sel­hub and Alan Lo­gan ex­plores these is­sues in greater de­tail.


Chil­dren with at­ten­tion deficits con­cen­trate bet­ter af­ter walk in the park. A po­ten­tial nat­u­ral treat­ment for at­ten­tion­d­eficit/hy­per­ac­tiv­ity dis­or­der: Ev­i­dence from a na­tional study. Ef­fect of sun­light and sea­son on sero­tonin turnover in the brain. Nar­row-band blue-light treat­ment of sea­sonal af­fec­tive dis­or­der in adults and the in­flu­ence of ad­di­tional non­sea­sonal symp­toms. Blue-en­riched white light in the work­place im­proves self-re­ported late­ness, per­for­mance and sleep qual­ity. Ef­fect of for­est en­vi­ron­ments on hu­man nat­u­ral killer (NK) ac­tiv­ity. Smelling laven­der and rose­mary in­creases free rad­i­cal scaveng­ing ac­tiv­ity and de­creases cor­ti­sol level in saliva. Aro­mas of rose­mary and laven­der es­sen­tial oils dif­fer­en­tially af­fect cog­ni­tion and mood in healthy adults. The ef­fects of run­ning, en­vi­ron­ment, and at­ten­tional fo­cus on ath­letes’ cat­e­cholamine and cor­ti­sol lev­els. Im­proved per­for­mance on cler­i­cal tasks associated with ad­min­is­tra­tion of pep­per­mint odor. En­hanc­ing ath­letic per­for­mance through the ad­min­is­tra­tion of pep­per­mint odor. The in­flu­ence of in­ter­ac­tion with for­est on cog­ni­tive func­tion. Use of liv­ing pot-plants to cleanse in­door air. Sixth In­ter­na­tional Con­fer­ence on In­door Air.


Au­tumn Sar­tain’s fa­vorite thing is spend­ing time in na­ture, which is why she chose to be a wildlife bi­ol­o­gist. For the past ten years she has wres­tled sea tur­tles in the trop­ics, chased song birds in the moun­tains, sorted through Antarc­tic seafloor sam­ples and dealt with all that silly busi­ness of gain­ing a post­grad­u­ate qual­i­fi­ca­tion in Bi­ol­ogy. You can see some of her writ­ing at au­tumn­sar­

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