New study says liv­ing in T.O. can be un­healthy

More time for­est bathing could be the cure

North Toronto Post - - Life - DAVID SUZUKI David Suzuki is the host of the CBC’s The Na­ture of Things and au­thor of more than 30 books on ecol­ogy (with files from Aryne Shep­pard).

For the most part, our brains didn’t evolve in cities. But in a few decades, al­most 70 per cent of the world’s peo­ple will live in ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments.

De­spite the pros­per­ity we as­so­ciate with cities, ur­ban­iza­tion presents a ma­jor health chal­lenge. Cities like Toronto, with their ac­cel­er­ated pace of life, can be stress­ful. The re­sults are seen in the brains and be­hav­iour of those raised in cities or cur­rently liv­ing in one.

On the up­side, city dwellers, like Toron­to­ni­ans, are on av­er­age wealth­ier and re­ceive bet­ter health care, nu­tri­tion and san­i­ta­tion than ru­ral res­i­dents. On the down­side, they ex­pe­ri­ence an in­creased risk of chronic dis­ease, a more de­mand­ing and stress­ful so­cial en­vi­ron­ment and greater lev­els of in­equity. In fact, city dwellers have a 21 per cent greater risk for anx­i­ety dis­or­ders and a 39 per cent in­creased like­li­hood of mood dis­or­ders.

A study pub­lished in Na­ture links city liv­ing with sen­si­tiv­ity to so­cial stress. MRI scans show greater ex­po­sure to ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments can in­crease ac­tiv­ity in the amyg­dala, a brain struc­ture in­volved in emo­tions such as fear and the re­lease of stress-re­lated hor­mones. Ac­cord­ing to the study, the amyg­dala “has been strongly im­pli­cated in anx­i­ety dis­or­ders, de­pres­sion, and other be­hav­iours that are in­creased in cities, such as vi­o­lence.”

The re­searchers also found peo­ple who lived in cities for their first 15 years ex­pe­ri­enced in­creased ac­tiv­ity in an area of the brain that helps reg­u­late the amyg­dala. So if you grew up in the city, you’re more likely than those who moved there later in life to have per­ma­nently raised sen­si­tiv­ity to stress.

Au­thor and pro­fes­sor David Gess­ner says we’re turn­ing into “fast twitch” an­i­mals. It’s like we have an alarm clock go­ing off in our brains ev­ery 30 sec­onds, sap­ping our abil­ity to con­cen­trate for longer pe­ri­ods of time. The de­mands of ur­ban life in a city like Toronto in­clude a con­stant need to fil­ter in­for­ma­tion, dodge dis­trac­tions and make de­ci­sions. We give our brains lit­tle time to re­cover.

How do we slow things down? Na­ture seems to be the an­swer. Cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gist David Strayer’s hy­poth­e­sis is that “be­ing in na­ture al­lows the pre­frontal cor­tex, the brain’s com­mand cen­tre, to dial down and rest, like an overused mus­cle.”

Re­search shows even brief in­ter­ac­tions with na­ture can soothe our brains. Stan­ford’s Gre­gory Brat­man de­signed an ex­per­i­ment in which par­tic­i­pants took a 50minute walk in ei­ther a nat­u­ral or an ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment. Peo­ple who took the na­ture walk ex­pe­ri­enced de­creased anx­i­ety, brood­ing and neg­a­tive emo­tion and in­creased mem­ory per­for­mance. Brat­man’s team found walk­ing in nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ments can de­crease ru­mi­na­tion, the un­healthy but fa­mil­iar habit of think­ing over and over about causes and con­se­quences of neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ences. Their study also showed neu­ral ac­tiv­ity in an area of the brain linked to risk for men­tal ill­ness was re­duced in par­tic­i­pants who walked through na­ture com­pared with those who walked through an ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment.

Korean re­searchers in­ves­ti­gated the dif­fer­ences in brain ac­tiv­ity when vol­un­teers just looked at ur­ban ver­sus nat­u­ral scenery. For those view­ing ur­ban im­ages, MRI scans showed in­creased blood flow to the amyg­dala re­gion. In con­trast, ar­eas of the brain as­so­ci­ated with em­pa­thy and al­tru­ism lit up for those who viewed nat­u­ral scenes.

In Japan, sci­en­tists found peo­ple spend­ing time in na­ture — shin­rin-yoku or “for­est bathing” — in­hale “ben­e­fi­cial bac­te­ria, plant­derived es­sen­tial oils and neg­a­tively-charged ions,” which in­ter­act with gut bac­te­ria to strengthen the body’s im­mune sys­tem and im­prove both men­tal and phys­i­cal health.

Spend­ing time in na­ture reg­u­larly is not a panacea for men­tal health, but it’s an es­sen­tial com­po­nent of health and psy­cho­log­i­cal re­silience. Na­ture helps us with­stand and re­cover from life’s chal­lenges. Toron­to­ni­ans can find nearby na­ture — a gar­den, lo­cal park or trail — to give their over­worked brains a break.

Ev­ery year, the David Suzuki Foun­da­tion chal­lenges Toron­to­ni­ans and city dwellers across Canada to spend more time out­side for health and men­tal well­be­ing.

The 30×30 Na­ture Chal­lenge asks peo­ple to com­mit to spend­ing at least 30 min­utes a day in na­ture for 30 days.

By com­mit­ting to this chal­lenge, you’ll re­ceive the health ben­e­fits of spend­ing time out­doors and learn how to add green time to your daily rou­tine.

Let’s show our brains — and bod­ies — some love. Get out­side!

Re­search shows that spend­ing time in na­ture can soothe our brains

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