May 22, 2020

HAPPIER OUTDOORS

“Truly the light is sweet and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun” Ecclesiastes (11:7).

At some time or another when you felt low and were self soothing with badly written poetry or inordinate amounts of Netflix, someone who cared for your well-being very likely told you to “Come now, it’ll be good for you to get outside for a little while”. And they were right. Why do you think this is?

Studies demonstrate that exposure to bright light has significant antidepressant effects. The light intensity required to see this effect is brighter than that emitted by your average household globe, so a nice long walk outside in the soft morning sunshine should do the trick1. A randomised cross over trial even found that subjects with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) who were treated with bright light saw a slightly quicker improvement in mood (reduction in depression scores) when compared to treatment with the antidepressant flouxatine2.

The really interesting thing is that seeing the colour green also has mental health benefits. The “green exercise effect” has been coined to describe the phenomenon whereby outdoor activity, specifically when surrounded by nature, triggers positive brain chemistry responses beyond that of indoor activity3. For example, studies have found that the more greenness that is perceived, the larger the reductions in anxiety4 and total mood disturbance5 and seeing the colour green also increases creativity6,7. This goes to show that taking in the plants and natural views as often as possible is only beneficial.

And let us remember that sunshine exposure (to the skin) stimulates our body’s production of vitamin D. Why is this important? Because there is a strong association between vitamin D deficiency and depression, and boosting vitamin D levels in depressed individuals who are deplete in this nutrient could significantly improve mood outcomes8,9.

At the time of writing, many of us are in lock down and so are prohibited from moving about freely outdoors. Here in the Southern hemisphere we are fast approaching the frigid season when our rugged sensibilities are replaced with the desperate fear of cold toes and so we sit wrapped up indoors with the windows shut tight.

If you are prone to the blues, now is the time to get your serum vitamin D levels tested at your local clinical laboratory (e.g. in South Africa we have Lancet, Ampath, and others). This blood test is affordable and it can tell you whether you have a need for additional vitamin D. Chat to your medical practitioner about this.

And most importantly, if you have a garden, or to live close to a park or green belt, then put your trainers on and get your booty outside. If not, take to the nearest tree lined street to get your daily dose of bright light, the green effect, and vitamin D – natures’ mood boosting medicines.

References:

  1. Parry and Maurer (2003) Light treatment of mood disorders. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience . Vol 5 . No. 4
  2. Ruhrmann, S., et al (1998). Effects of fluoxetine versus bright light in the treatment of seasonal affective disorder. Psychological Medicine,28(4), 923-933.
  3. Loureiro A, Veloso S (2017) Chapter 8: Green Exercise, Health and Well-Being: Handbook of Environmental Psychology and Quality of Life Research, International Handbooks of Quality-of-Life, Springer
  4. Graham J. Mackay, James T. Neill, (2010) The effect of “green exercise” on state anxiety and the role of exercise duration, intensity, and greenness: A quasi-experimental study, Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 11 (3): 238-245
  5. Adam Akers., et al (2012) Visual Color Perception in Green Exercise: Positive Effects on Mood and Perceived Exertion, Environ. Sci. Technol. 46 (16): 8661–8666
  6. Studente S., et al (2016) Facilitating creative thinking in the classroom: Investigating the effects of plants and the colour green on visual and verbal creativity, Thinking Skills and Creativity. 19, 1-8
  7. Lichtenfeld S., et al (2012) Fertile Green: Green Facilitates Creative Performance, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 38 (6): 784-797
  8. Brotchie H., et al (2017) Vitamin D and depression, Journal of Affective Disorders, 208
  9. Zahedi H., et al (2019) The Effect of Vitamin D on Depression in Individuals. International Journal of Medical Reviews. 6(3):77–80

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