Get a dose of vitamin ‘N’

‘Nature deficit disorder’ can affect both mental and physical health. Fortunately, the solution is simple: spend more time outdoors 


Spending time with nature can protect against diseases such as depression. Photo: iStockphoto
Spending time with nature can protect against diseases such as depression. Photo: iStockphoto

Remember the advice, “Being outdoors will do you good”? It makes sense scientifically too.

A growing body of research says it is essential to get enough vitamin “N” (nature) to stay healthy. The loss of open spaces and our modern, sedentary lifestyles prevent us from doing so, and this can have implications for physical as well as mental health.

You may be more familiar with vitamin D, and there is obviously a link, but this is about more than sunlight. In his 2005 book, Last Child In The Woods, Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder”, defining it as “a diminished ability to find meaning in the life that surrounds us.... The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need,” he writes on Richardlouv.com. 

Nature deficit disorder is yet to be recognized by any of the medical manuals for mental disorders, but the evidence of its health effects on adults as well as children is piling up. 

In fact, a recent study found that people who visit parks for 30 minutes or more each week are much less likely to have high blood pressure or poor mental health than those who do not. The study, conducted by Australian and UK environmental scientists, was published in June in the journal Scientific Reports.

Peter Kahn, a researcher at the University of Washington, US, recently wrote in the Science journal that there’s an enormous amount of disease largely tied to our removal from the natural environment. In his article, “Living In Cities, Naturally”, he and Terry Hartig cite research that shows the emotional and mental strain cities can have on people. The authors write that while many factors share the blame, reduced access to nature is a leading contributor.

The deficiency

“Research suggests that rising rates of allergies and autoimmune disorders might be caused, in part, by less exposure to the healthy bacteria found in nature. While exposure to relentless pollution is bad, exposure to some dirt is good for us,” says Wasim Ahmed Sachora, consultant, internal medicine, at the Columbia Asia Hospital in Ahmedabad.

There are also studies that show how spending time with nature provides protection against a range of diseases, including depression, diabetes, obesity, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cardiovascular disease and cancer. 

According to Ming Kuo, an environment and behaviour researcher at the US’ University of Illinois, nature has the ability to enhance the functioning of the body’s immune system. In an article published in 2015 in the journal Frontiers In Psychology, she wrote that nature is like a multivitamin that provides us with all the nutrients we need to stay disease-free.

A report published in the Emotion journal last year linked a rise in the level of cytokines (the proteins that signal the immune system to work harder) to the feeling of awe that a walk in nature inspires. “Sometimes, a change in scenery is all it takes to get better and shake off a long-bothering illness. Proximity to nature helps the immune system to work better and thus fight diseases more efficiently,” says Supriya Bali, associate director, internal medicine, at the Max Super Speciality Hospital in Saket, New Delhi.

Mind tonic 

Heard of winter blues? This is where vitamin D comes in. In perpetually cold places, people actually get depressed, with symptoms like sadness, fatigue and hopelessness—all from a lack of sunlight (this is also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD). “There’s science behind it. Vitamin D, which the sunlight helps produce in the body, is responsible for neuronal growth and has a positive effect on our mood,” says Preeti Singh, senior consultant and clinical psychologist at the Paras Hospitals in Gurgaon, near Delhi.

This perhaps explains why we feel happier when we go sit in the garden on a warm winter afternoon rather than staying cooped up inside.

Being out in nature influences sleep patterns too. Waking up with sunlight and getting some sunshine early in the day keeps the sleep-wake cycle on track (and insomnia away). “That’s because getting natural light during the day increases our melatonin output at night (melatonin is a natural hormone made by our bodies that enhances sleep),” says Singh.

She says employees are more productive and fall sick less often in workplaces designed with nature in mind. “That’s probably why corner offices with a view are considered a plum catch,” adds Singh.

A 2012 study published in the journal PLOS One showed that young people who backpacked for three days showed higher creativity and cognitive abilities. Researchers in Sweden, meanwhile, have found that joggers who exercise in a natural green setting feel less anxious, angry or depressed than those who burn the same amount of calories jogging in an artificially built urban setting.

The prescription

So being more in tune with nature can help us lead happier, healthier and smarter lives. “It’s simple actually. As the onslaught of technology increases, we need to figure out ways to increase nature time. We all spend a lot of time with screens, but I think the more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need as a balancing agent,” says Dr Sachora.

“Weave nature back into your life consciously,” advises Dr Bali. She lists some simple ways to do this: “Grow your own greens, even if it’s just a few plants on the balcony where you sit and have your morning cup of tea. Or get a pet, because taking it for a walk will help immensely. You can also go for a walk in the park instead of on the concrete, or simply try open-air meditation (sit under a tree in your local park for 30 minutes).” 

Or why not go for a beach holiday or a mountain hike instead of a city-hopping vacation? Spend time with nature consciously for a while. Once you get addicted to the sunshine on your face and the wind in your hair, spending time outdoors will come naturally to you

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