Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Mental Health Prescription: Nature

I love to travel. It satiates my curiousity about the world and it disrupts the monotony that can accompany daily life. And when I travel, exploring the natural world is always on my agenda; whether it is an urban garden or outlying areas of unspoiled nature.

Travel also serves as a way to de-stress because I disconnect from the usual demands of my home base. One of my favorite ways to stay healthy on the road and at home - both physically and mentally - is to go for a hike. Walking in nature is a powerful mood stabilizer with great side effects. Instead of the long litany of negative side effects that often come with taking medications for mental health, walking outside comes with a great list of benefits: reduced risk of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and some forms of cancer and is a great way to reach and maintain a healthy weight.

A recent study* by Stanford researchers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (July 2015) found that walking in nature served as an anti-depressant. The study wanted to explore why it is that people who live in urban areas have a much higher risk of mental illness. This has been a consistent finding but the cause/effect relationship is unclear. For example, city dwellers have a 20% increased risk of anxiety and a 40% increased risk of mood disorders as compared to people who live in rural areas**.

The study assigned one group of people to walk in a grassland area with trees and another group to walk along a busy 4-lane urban road. They found little to no impact on physiological conditions but marked differences in the brain. Those who walked in nature had a lot less activity in the area of the brain that is active when people focus on negative emotions.

So the takeaway for people with bipolar disorder: Take a hike! Get your mind and body healthy by going outside and enjoying the positive benefits for your mind and your body.

*Bratman, GN, Hamilton, JP, Hahn, KS, Daily GC, & Gross, JJ. (2015). Nature experiences reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 112 (28), 8567-8572.
**Jordan, R. (2015). Stanford researchers find mental health prescription: Nature. Stanford News, June 30.
Photo credit: I took this picture on a recent trip to Glacier National Park with my daughter.