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Nature, Ecotherapy & Mental Health

Ecotherapy is a sort of umbrella term that refers to practices and techniques that recognize the connection between humans and nature. With regard to eco-therapy, the health benefits of spending time in nature are well documented (Shanahan et al., 2016; Hartig et al., 2003; Hanski et al., 2012; Mitchell & Popham, 2008; Astell-Burt et al., 2014; Bratman et al, 2015). These include improvements in mental health, such as lower levels of depression (Shanahan et al., 2016; Astell-Burt et al., 2014) and reduced anxiety (Bratman, 2015), as well as physical health, including reduced blood pressure (Hartig et al, 2003), less allergies (Hanski et al., 2012) and lower mortality from cardiovascular disease (Mitchell & Popham, 2008). Research has established a strong correlation between green spaces and peoples’ health, with happiness increasing in those closer to these green areas. (Bertram & Rehdanz; 2015; Fleming, 2014). Green spaces in the above-mentioned studies refers to urban areas having more trees, parks, reserves and playground. However, the connection between our mood, mental health and nature also applies to other natural environments, including forests, national parks, beaches, jungles, deserts and lakes.

Spending time at the beach or in the ocean also has many physical and mental health benefits. Listening to the rhythmic and calming sounds of the ocean waves activates the rest and digest or parasympathetic nervous system. Negative ions from the ocean also enhance our mood. According to Nani et al., deep sea water is rich in nutrients and elements, such as magnesium, calcium, potassium, chromium, selenium and zinc, which are good for cancer, diabetes, obesity and skin problems (2016). Moss reviews the literature around the medicinal uses of water (2010). Water has been used for treatments in various cultures and traditions, including in Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Celtic and Hebrew societies (Moss, 2010). Treatments have included hydrotherapy, balneotherapy and thalassotherapy (Moss, 2010). Being out in nature, near the ocean and also around trees, has been shown to increase blood oxygen levels.

The reverse is also true – polluted environments affect our physical health. For example, air quality has been shown to substantially affect health and mortality (Walton et al., 2015). In China, air pollution affected mortality rates during various COVID-19 outbreaks (Chen, 2020). Air pollution is known to enter the body and cause millions of deaths each year (Schraufnagel et al., 2019). A strong scientific review by the Forum of International Respiratory Societies’ Environmental Committee analyzed the damaging effects of air pollution globally. The results are overwhelming with over 70,000 scientific demonstrating air pollution is affecting our health (Schraufnagel et al., 2019). Ultra-tiny particulate matter has been shown to be carried around the body in the blood (Schraufnagel et al., 2019). Every organ of the body is impacted and this can lead to dementia, heart and lung disease, diabetes, cancer, infertility, liver and skin problems and reduced intelligence (Schraufnagel et al., 2019). The systematic damage, similar to COVID-19 is due to widespread inflammation throughout the body. The WHO has warned that over 90% of the world’s population is exposed to toxic air, which is surprisingly a bigger killer than tobacco smoking (Schraufnagel et al., 2019).

Practices, such as meditation on the sun and spending time in nature, are have been shown to reduce stress, anxiety and depression (Shanahan et al.,2016; Astell-Burt et al., 2014; and Bratman, 2015). A program focused on integrating yoga and eco therapy may be beneficial for the health conditions that often aren’t attributed to breathing in toxic air. According to Zivin and Neidell, air pollution has hidden impacts, with respiratory and cardiovascular hospitalizations representing just the tip of the iceberg, as many health issues linked to air pollution do not require hospitalization (2018).

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