I live in New York City and I love its many great restaurants, art galleries, the invigorating multi-culturalism of daily life, its world-class dance and theater, and the many talented and interesting people whom this city attracts. Perhaps, you love a big city too. But life in “The Big City” comes at a price, and I’m not talking about the cost of housing. I’m talking about the toll that urban living takes on our health.
Take our lungs, for example. Urban air contains countless compounds and particles, which we inhale during our 23,000 and 25,000 daily breaths. The cilia (hair-like projections in our respiratory tree) cannot filter all of it, so many of these particulates accumulate in our alveoli, which are the air sacs of our lungs that deliver oxygen to the blood. This air pollution can trigger new cases of asthma, exacerbate previously-existing respiratory illnesses, and provoke development or progression of chronic illnesses such as lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and emphysema. It should then come as no surprise that the lungs of an urbanite are often distinguishable from those of a suburbanite by simply viewing their X-rays.
In addition to its impact on physical health, our urban lifestyle has been linked to psychological disorders, such as depression and anxiety. In fact, scientists at Canada’s McGill University used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to demonstrate how one’s environment can alter neuronal functioning, thereby increasing or decreasing the risk of psychological problems.
Fortunately, we’ve been gifted with a wonderful medicine ─ “nature.” Unfortunately, we tend to ignore it. Although many of us feel a natural draw to parks, woods, the sounds of birds, streams, and rivers, we routinely opt instead for activities that are mostly indoors. Indeed, it has been reported that, on average, Americans spend between 75 and 95 percent of their lives indoors.
Immersing oneself in nature for a few hours brings so many healing benefits, including stress reduction, blood-pressure normalization, mood lifting, improved lung volumes, and improved tissue oxygenation, among others. The scientifically proven benefits of connecting with nature even includes an increase of certain immune cells, which are responsible for killing invaders in the body. And being out-of-doors provides exposure to the sun, which helps to address the widespread and harmful vitamin D deficiency that afflicts many of us, as I’ve been known to talk about.
You probably did not know that in the U.K., it is lawful for doctors to write a prescription for exercise counseling for depression. Exercise rather than drugs! The exercise counselor works with a patient to design a nature-based therapy plan that includes hikes in the woods, gardening, volunteering to clean parks and trails, and the like. The “green” component is considered very important in this “ecotherapy,” which means being around or touching trees, flowers, bushes, leaves, grass, and soil.
When I visited Japan and first heard about their “Forest Bathing Medicine,” called Shinrin-Yoku, I was immediately reminded how good I always feel when I’m in the woods. Forest is my zen, personally. And as the Japanese put it, it is truly therapeutic to “bathe” yourself in the forest. There is a branch of the nature conservation industry in Japan dedicated to public awareness about forest bathing areas, the healing properties of forest bathing, and the importance of nurturing human relationships with the nature. It is perhaps no coincidence that the people of Japan have the longest life expectancy on the planet.
So, my dears, for the health of your mind and body, get on a leafy trail for a few hours. Immerse yourself in nature, breathe it all in, touch the grass, hug the trees, and return home invigorated. You might even return with some creative ideas, as has happened to me more than once.
And as always, no question is too silly or too private for Dr. Inna. If you have any questions, give me a shout.
So very truly yours,