Hug a Tree a Day, Keep the Doctor Away

In recent years, city planners took a step back after the industrial revolution steamrolled urban planning for over a century and realized, ‘Oh wait, all the nature we took away was actually helping our health’. Turns out, encounters with nature (trees and greenery in the simplest form) have mental health benefits, cognitive benefits, promote physical activity, and go a long way for creating a sense of belonging in a community (also promotes social support). So when you hear people say they feel refreshed and rejuvenated after having access to nature, its not just their imagination! Their bodies actually have had physiological benefits from being in nature.

Is this a health issue that you have seen in mainstream health news?

Your brain on nature: The mental health benefits are a-plenty. Experiencing nature helps restore mental fatigue from work, school, and life stress. You are able to focus better, and it helps you retain information you have learned. When there are plants in office spaces, or in school settings, there is evidence that workplace morale is increased, and efficiency in the workplace is enhanced. Additionally, less workers/students take sick days and are less frustrated. Adults who have regular access to nature, have fewer incidents of Alzheimer’s and Dementia later in life, and are less likely to be depressed.

Access to greenery is also extremely important for kids. It helps them develop identity, creativity, and independence. It also facilitates productive play with their friends. Kids that have access to nature have fewer behavioral problems (ADD/ADHD), and have better cognitive functioning. This helps problem-solving skills, and cognitive performance.

Being active around nature: Access to nature not only increases the willingness to be active, but has more health benefits than running on a treadmill. The green environment has more restorative effects than indoor settings, and provides options to be active for those who are not able to afford a gym membership. Physical activity in nature also provides increased mental health benefits (increased nerve growth in your hippocampus occurs– a central part of your brain for memory formation and recall).

Social connections and nature: A neighborhood that has access to green spaces increases the social support and interactions within the community. This results in mental health benefits, and a sense of safety and trust in your community. Green spaces encourage social contact by serving as informal meeting places for group activities. This helps decrease loneliness, and social isolation which are related to numerous health detriments. Community gardens, shade trees, and parks all are examples of ways nature has been brought to the neighborhood.

Which is great right? Yes it is. But you may begin to see a trend here with other topics I’ve covered. Who are the people that are benefitting from ‘urban greening’? (Urban greening is the official term for bringing nature into the city.) Largely, Caucasian, affluent populations. Who already have the best health in the nation. So again these benefits are just increasing the health of the healthiest people. Which is not equitable by any means. Most low-income families reside in Superfund sites, or close to industrial facilities that not only lack urban greenery, but actually have lowered air quality, and water quality compared to other locations in cities. Some efforts to increase green spaces in low-income communities had good intentions, but actually resulted in an even worse problem – environmental gentrification. The result is quite the balancing act. What happened when these green initiatives went in to clean up low-income neighborhoods was they did just that. The clean-up made communities more appealing, which drove up the cost of living, and forced those low-income families to relocate (because they couldn’t afford the cost increase) to even worse living conditions. This is what is considered environmental gentrification.

To address this issue, Jennifer Wolch and JGEcollegues at UC Berkeley introduced the idea of ‘Just Green Enough’. The idea with this is to still work on improving green spaces in low-income neighborhoods, but to find the fine line where residents will experience the health benefits, but won’t be forced out by more wealthy counterparts. These improvements are largely led by community activists, who know their community better than anyone else. They have been important for designing solutions that will in fact benefit the residents in the community.

But this kind of goal takes time, patience, and a resilient attitude. It is important work, but is not being done nearly enough. (Only a few cases exist). Introducing green space goes so much farther than just providing something nice to look at. In these low-income neighborhoods the introduction of green space helps to reduce crime and violence, and helps the community to become more close-knit (in addition to all the physical/mental health benefits). This kind of empowerment is necessary, as we are in some scary times facing an uphill battle against governmental policy, and large differences in power in our society. I’m in no way saying that everyone should have everything given to them, but everyone should have an equal opportunity to make their life what they want. Being healthy, having safe air/water, safe places to live, and access to nature should not be a privilege of the rich and white, but they largely are. And these huge disparities between basic living necessities and health necessities (not to mention access and power) in the U.S. is simply not sustainable.

But as I again find myself tip-toeing towards a political realm, I will leave you with some resources to learn more, or start engaging your own community to push for health equity.

Everyday Colorado Community Engagement tool:




Sleep Your Way to a Better You

Sleep…we all love getting a good night’s sleep. Turns out, sleep is more important for way more than just feeling refreshed for the day. Sleep impacts your health in so many ways, ranging from memory consolidation to mortality. And I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that Americans are chronically sleep deprived. In fact, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke estimates that about 40 million people in the U.S. suffer from chronic long-term sleep disorders each year, and an additional 20 million experience occasional sleep problems. The CDC indicates that more than a third of American adults are not getting enough sleep.  

The CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) has identified insufficient sleep as a public health problem in the U.S. People who have insufficient sleep are more likely to develop chronic disease (diabetes, depression, obesity, increased prevalence of cancer, mortality rate, and reduced quality of life). Mental health and well-being suffers, decreased productivity, imagination, concentration, focus and vehicular accidents as a result of unintentionally falling asleep while driving all are additionally consequences of a lack of sleep.

On the contrary, getting too much sleep also has negative consequences to your health (can we ever get it right?!). Although the consequences of oversleeping are not as serious as those of a lack of sleep. But oversleeping (like under sleeping) messes up your circadian rhythm (the cycle your body operates on). You’ll likely experience headaches, feel groggy, tired, and drowsy. Other potential side effects may include lower back pain, stroke, diabetes and heart disease. Often oversleeping is an indicator of another issue, such as depression, or hypersomnia (a sleep disorder that results from excess sleeping), or medication/drug use.

So how much sleep do you need? The National Institutes of Health suggests that school-age kids need at least 10 hours of sleep daily, teenagers need 9-10 hours, and adults need 7-8  hours. Getting an adequate amount of sleep at night will boost your health. It will make you refreshed and alert, help to regulate your bodily functioning, improve your mental state, productivity, and promotes a longer, healthier life. You eat better, are more likely to be active, are less stressed, and an all around better version of yourself when you have healthy sleep cycles.

What’s even cooler about sleep, is that you can physically tell a difference in a sleep deprived brain, and a brain that gets adequate sleep. Chinese and European researchers found that sleep deprived brains had less white matter (white matter is made of myelin which helps your brain send signals from neuron to neuron), and reduced nerve tracks in the areas of the brain that control emotions and sensory information.

I hope this information makes you feel guilt-free about prioritizing your health and start getting enough Zzzzz.  Rest well….

Your Zipcode: What does it mean for your health?

The economic climate in the U.S. today, is one of great range. For a while now, the rich have been getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. These differences, or disparities in income and location of residence, result in huge differences in health outcomes. These are called health disparities. Health disparities are preventable differences in the burden of disease, injury, violence, or opportunities to achieve optimal health that are experienced by socially disadvantaged populations. They are a huge topic of concern in the world of Public Health, so it has been good to see it popping up in the news.

Equality-EquityIt’s important to make a distinction here before we move on. Health disparities simply refer to the differences in health we see between wealthy and poor populations. These differences often result from inequity. Health inequities refer to the environments that either promote or detriment health. Those in low-income communities have lowered living conditions which correlate with numerous health risks (air quality, water quality, crime rates), less financial resources to provide healthful food to their family, lack access to nature, and access to safe places to be physically active. Health disparities are NOT health inequities. Health disparities are a RESULT of inequity.

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 12.52.41 PMThe New York Times published a post this week, “The Rich Live Longer Everywhere. For the Poor, Geography Matters.”  The article shows an interactive map of the U.S. that is color-coded for lifespan and it is evident that lifespan ranges almost a decade across geographic locations. The gap in lifespan between rich and poor widened between 2001 and 2014. This means that the top 1 percent in income among American men live 15 years longer than the poorest 1 percent. (For women this gap was 10 years). The affluent (rich) not only have more resources that allow them to buy healthier products, but they also live in healthier ways; they exercise more, smoke less, feel less stress, and are less likely to be obese.

There is a very strong correlation between income and life span,” Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview. “But it is not inevitable. There are things we can do to change the life trajectory of people. What improves health in a community? It includes wide access to social, educational and economic opportunity.” Preventative measures are more important to promote health, and community health initiatives can help us bridge the gap.

The same study was covered by Medical News Today. The authors of this research suggest that we can do this through local policy.  “The strong association between geographic variation in life expectancy and health behaviors suggests that policy interventions should focus on changing health behaviors among low-income individuals. Tax policies and other local public policies may play a role in inducing such changes.”

This idea of zip code as a health factor, has been powerful and is gaining traction in our understanding of health in the U.S. And health directly correlates with success. Which is the American Dream, right? Talk Poverty covered health disparities in terms of pursuing the American Dream. It’s good that this topic is gaining momentum, as it is estimated that 97% of Americans believe that everyone should have an equal shot at success. But when you think about it, it’s pretty intuitive that there are some huge gaps in opportunities for success right now in our country. If you struggle to put food on the table, and don’t have safe places to be active, or adequate medical coverage, you have many more fundamental obstacles to overcome in your journey to success when compared to an affluent competitor.

It is suggested that if we want to change this unacceptable status quo we need to work on two fronts: reinvest in impoverished neighborhoods so that residents have access to high-quality housing, jobs, good schools, transportation, and other basics; and ensure that families with low-incomes have access to affordable housing in neighborhoods that already offer residents these resources.

Currently, for every 100 households earning below 30 percent of the area median income, there are just 28 affordable and available units. That adds up to a shortage of 4.5 million units just for those very low-income households. Keep in mind, that is households, not people. Which is crazy considering that housing is such a basic life necessity. And I’m not even touching on the issue of homelessness in this post — that is a whole other topic.

You can start to get the idea of just how impactful our greatly polarized wealth distribution in the U.S. is on our nation’s health. And as this post tip-toes towards a political line, I’ll leave you with this:

Quanda Burrell, a Boston resident who was able to relocate from a low-income community to a mixed-income community and reaped the health benefits of living in a safer/healthier community said this of community activism, “A lot of people say that the political leaders in the statehouse don’t care about them,” she said. “But you got to make them care. You got to visit them, speak out. If more low-income folks were talking, I think that would make a difference.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Castro seemed to agree, adding that the rental crisis is also harming the middle class.  “How do you mobilize folks to impress upon policymakers at all levels about the needs of different communities?” Secretary Castro asked. “I don’t see that conversation right now happening enough.

UPDATE: The New York Times recently published a follow-up, related interactive graph that educational abilities differ drastically among the rich and the poor, and between racial groups. Worth a look