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.

https://depts.washington.edu/hhwb/Thm_Mental.html

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: http://www.everydayco.org/your-values

http://actrees.org/news/trees-in-the-news/research/urban-green-space-public-health-and-environmental-justice-the-challenge-of-making-cities-just-green-enough/

http://www.governing.com/topics/transportation-infrastructure/gov-green-gentrification-series.html

https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/gentrification-green-neighborhoods-just-green-enough

http://www.fastcodesign.com/3037135/evidence/how-parks-gentrify-neighborhoods-and-how-to-stop-it

 

 

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Stress…& How It’s Hurting Your Health

Stress… We all know it well. We live in an extremely high stress, highly stimulating world that causes mental, emotional and physical stress on your body. Why? Because of our good old pal, evolution. Stress is a mechanism that served as our body’s survival mechanism when faced with a stimulus that disturbs our physical or mental equilibrium.

What does that mean? It means your body developed such that if you were walking in the woods gathering berries for your clan, and stumbled upon a bear who was also gathering berries, your body had a way to get up and go, to try to stay alive. But in 2016, it’s less and less common to encounter these acute stressors. Acute stressors stimulate your adrenaline and occur based on a unique situation. However, more often we experience chronic stress.  Chronic stress is persistent over time and comes in forms like…not knowing if you’ll be able to make rent that month, or how you are going to afford sports for your kids. These stressors are constantly on your mind, persistent, and actually really harmful to your health. Stress can basically worsen any health condition you already have, and also makes you more likely to contract other chronic health issues. Let’s talk about some stress- related health problems that you have the power to fix.

10 Stress-Related Health Problems

  1. Heart Disease: It’s no coincidence that heart disease is a leading cause of death in the US (think obesity, stress, lack of nutrition….). Stress has a big part in this. Remember the bear? Your body’s reaction in this case is to get your blood pumping, and fast, so you have the ability to recruit your body’s muscles to fight or fly. This same physiological reaction happens whether you are facing a bear, or pissed in traffic. This kind of reaction is not meant to be persistent over time. As a result, your blood pressure, cholesterol, blood flow, and heart rate are impacted which increase the likelihood of heart disease or a heart attack.
  2. Asthma: Weird one, right? There is not much known as far as causation, however it is important to note that a parent who experiences chronic stress is more likely to have a child that has asthma. Stress also worsens (exacerbates) asthma in people who already have the condition.
  3. Obesity: Stress causes higher levels of the hormone cortisol (associated with adrenaline and increases your blood sugar), which can lead to higher fat deposits in the abdomen. Fat in the abdomen is the most unhealthy part of the body to carry fat, resulting in increased BMI. Also, a lot of people use food as a coping mechanism to stress, which does not help the waistline any.
  4. Diabetes: This is closely related to the obesity issue, but further, stress alone can raise glucose levels in those who have type 2 diabetes.
  5. Headaches: Stress is the most common cause of both tension headaches and migraines
  6. Depression & Anxiety: This is not surprising, but it is shocking how closely stress is related to depression and anxiety. Chronic stress is related to depression in an estimated 80% of cases.
  7. Stomach problems: Though stress doesn’t cause ulcers, it can make them worse. It can also result in reflux and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
  8. Alzheimer’s: This correlation is newly emerging, but animal studies show that chronic stress may cause brain legions to form more quickly. Humans with Alzheimer’s appear to have slowed disease progression when stress is lowered.
  9. Stress Ages You: Chronic stress quickens the rate that your body ages. Think of presidents just for example, they serve for 8 years at most, but often appear to have aged about 20 years during their term. No matter who you are, stress is NOT a good look for you.
  10. Premature Death: Chronic stress does indeed take time off of your life.

Don’t let this stress you out about your stress

Now, don’t let yourself get stressed about thinking that your stress is killing you slowly and painfully, but rather let it give you the tools and the motivation to turn things around, and get control over your stress. My previous post on mindfulness, mediation, and yoga can be a good starting point. Gaining awareness of a situation is often the biggest battle. I encourage you to think about your sources of stress, and think about whether they are reasonable stressors, or if there would be more productive things for you to focus your energy on. Transforming your stress into positive energy takes all the negative effects we’ve covered, and turns them into the positive outcomes I discuss in the Mindfulness post. It is important to realize that you as an individual, have ultimate control over your attitude, energy, and behavior. The choices you make in this realm, turn outward into your physical health, and the interactions you have in the world. It’s really powerful stuff.

Here are some other sources that cover this topic:

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/03/160307191029.htm

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/one-true-thing/201011/transforming-stress-positive-energy

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2568977/

Be Mindful, Be Healthy

The purpose of this blog is to give readers some perspective on the range of factors at play when thinking and reading about health issues presented in the media. But with this, I want to also take opportunities to provide you with some ways to take control over your own health. There is often the misconception that you have to have money to be happy, or fit, or to eat healthy. As I mentioned last week there is this *correlation* (remember correlation vs causation?) between low SES and obesity and poorer health, which indeed is a contributing factor (see last weeks post for more on this). But more often, it is not so much the lack of money, but the lack of knowledge of how to increase your health with limited resources. It is possible!! There are obviously exceptions, as many health conditions do warrant medical attention -in which case you should seek medical assistance – but there is SO much you can do on your own, in terms of promoting life-long health through preventative measures. This week I want to talk about the topic of mindfulness and meditation in this context. Have you encountered the topic of Mindfulness? Is it a topic that is covered in mainstream media?

Physical & Mental Well-Being

The first article I’ll cover, is based on a Buddhist health study that was done at Northern Arizona University (NAU), which looked at the benefits of mindfulness training on individuals’ physical and mental well-being. This study surveyed 866 Buddhist practitioners from all around the globe, and what they found was the ability to focus and calm your mind makes a large difference in your well-being.

 5 key health benefits:

  1. Strengthened immune system and physiological responses to stress and negativity
  2. Improved social relationships (both in family and strangers)
  3. Reduced stress, depression, anxiety, and increase well-being and happiness
  4. Increased openness to experiences
  5. Led to greater psychological mindfulness which included clear, flexible awareness, a practical stance toward reality, and heightened attention.

Be the change you want to see in the world. Mindful practices have been correlated with positive alterations in neural patterns in parts of the brain associated with sensory processing and empathetic response (thanks to neuroplasticity!!). “’The Buddhist ideals are that whatever you practice, that is what you are becoming, so if you practice being angry and shouting and so forth, you become very accomplished in doing that,’ states Sullivan (PhD in Religious Studies). ‘On the other hand, if you practice loving kindness, compassion and so forth, you are making yourself into that type of person.’  Thus achieving better physical well-being or psychological health comes from sharpening the mind to focus and be more successfully aware.” The conclusions of this study were that the conscious ability to transform your mind is perhaps the greatest ability we have as humans to shape the direction of our lives and positively affect those around us. Pretty cool that we all possess that potential, right?

See the article here: https://nau.edu/research/feature-stories/mindfulness-training-has-positive-health-benefits/

Open your mind. You may be thinking, “That’s nice. I’m not a Buddhist practitioner.” That’s fine! You don’t have to be to reap the health benefits of mindful meditation. (Benefits include: reduced stress, risk of various disease, improved well-being, and a rewired brain.) You don’t even have to believe in Buddhism or practice Buddhism to practice mindfulness. To meditate mindfully, all you have to have is your breath. And if you’re reading this, you’ve got breath! You must be open and receptive, non-judgmental to your present-moment experience. You can mindfully eat, mindfully walk, you can mindfully meditate for deeper sleep, mindfully breathe to help energize yourself – all the things.

A mindful brain is a fresh brain. A study published in the New York Times, looked at the benefits of meditation in a control and experimental group of unemployed, stressed individuals looking for employment. The experimental group did a mindful retreat where they learned mindful practices and techniques, while the control group also did a retreat, but it focused on stretching and was more of a social gathering. The researchers collected blood and brain scans before and after the retreat, and again four months later. The mindful group reported feeling refreshed and better able to withstand their stresses. Not to mention, their brains had more activity and connections in the parts of the brain that connect stress reactions to focus and calming areas. And even cooler — four months after the retreat, even though most people had not continued meditating, their bloodwork showed lowered levels of inflammation compared to the control group!

See for yourself here: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/02/18/contemplation-therapy/?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=0

Mediate yourself to better sleep. Meditation also happens to be great for your sleep health. Your sleep quality is linked to an insane amount of bodily functioning (pretty much all of it…cognition, energy, focus, performance, not to mention the array of diseases that are correlated with or exacerbated by poor sleep). The New York Times also featured an an article by the JAMA Internal Medicine Network. They conducted a study that examined the effects of meditation in older adults with sleep problems. Those that practiced mindfulness had fewer symptoms of insomnia, depression, and fatigue. Mindfulness was identified as a sleep aid to promote improved sleep quality without the side effects of sleep medication.

Read about it here: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/23/meditation-for-a-good-nights-sleep/

Mindfulness Meditation Process
Mindfulness Meditation Process (Source: Dr. Andrea Grabovac, http://www.mindfulness-matters.org/what-is-mindfulness/)

The hardest part of all of this, is actually training yourself to be mindful. I’ve been attending a class to mindfully manage stress, and the biggest thing is that you have to be patient with yourself!! Because as simple as it sounds, sitting for even ten minutes, guided by your breath and simply being aware of the present moment is very hard. Not thinking about what you’re going to be eating for dinner, or what you think you should be doing right now, or what is going to happen tomorrow; thinking about your body in space and your surroundings in the present moment, is pretty difficult. I’ve found a free app, it is called Insight Timer which has a ton of guided meditations for almost any situation. It really has helped me to have another voice guiding me, rather than relying solely on myself to keep focus. I encourage you to try it, and see how you feel!

Here are some links to resources for free guided mindfulness practices:

Insight Timer: Guided practice https://insighttimer.com 
Simply Being: Guided practice for relaxation and presence https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/simply-being-guided-meditation/id347418999?mt=8 
Headspace: Meditation for modern living http://www.getsomeheadspace.com
MINDBODY Connect: Live healthier and happier https://www.mindbodyonline.com/connet
Omvana: the world’s best transformational audios for meditation, sleep, relaxation, productivity, focus & inspiration http://www.omvana.com
Web-based Mindfulness Guide Meditation Podcasts: http://marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=22