Go Outside! People Who Play In Green Spaces Are Healthier

Go Outside People Who Play In Green Spaces Are Healthier

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Technology is the use of scientific knowledge for practical purposes or applications, whether in industry or in our everyday lives. Clean technologies — also known sometimes as green tech — reduce the negative effects that our post-industrial society has on the planet and its ecosystems, including human life. Those negative effects on human life can sometimes be alleviated by the simplest of green tech — it seems we may need to go outside and connect with nature to decrease anxiety levels, lessen stress, and alleviate feelings of anger. And those are not the only benefits of choosing to go outside.

Much recent research discusses how physical activity stands as a potent modulator of immune function, capable of influencing the delicate balance between pro- and anti-inflammatory processes. When we are in contact with nature and its abundant biodiversity, we expose ourselves to a broad range of microbes, activating different parts of our defensive system. Indeed, human health is rooted in biodiversity. For a very long time biodiversity has been considered the pinnacle of ecosystem services — those conditions and processes within natural ecosystems that can sustain and fulfill human life.

Humans are connected with the natural environment and its microbes and biogenic chemicals through eating, drinking, breathing, and touching. The negative impact of climate change and loss of biodiversity on human health has called for overtly recognizing the positive effects of the biodiversity in nature.

Up until this moment in time, biodiversity loss discussions in the media have not fully recognized the privation that is also taking place in the human body — that is, nature deficiency. The first medicinal drugs came from natural sources and existed in the form of herbs, plants, roots, vines, and fungi. Today prescription drug use has reached historic highs in the US, according to the Natural Library of Medicine. Maybe it’s time to look for cures to what ails us closer to home — we need to go outside!

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An experiment in Finland established that, when children go outside, they gain benefits beyond mental health — in fact, the diversity of microbes in the children’s guts and on their skin appeared healthier. And it took only a short period of time — about a month. The three, four, and five-year old children in daycare schools who had the chance to go outside and into a greener landscape showed increased T-cells and other important immune markers in their blood within 28 days.

Instead of restricting children to built urban structures like pavement, tile, and gravel — which have a different yet still positive role in brain and body health — daycare workers established a lawn, planted dwarf heather and blueberries, and showed children how to care for crops in planter boxes. Researchers studied these youngest students whose play time included being immersed such a mini-forest’s greenery and undergrowth.

The exposure to the nature world was so powerful that it altered the children’s immune systems. The findings come at a time in which global biodiversity is rapidly declining, yet a growing body of research indicates that multiple forms of biodiversity are associated with an increasingly diverse set of human health and well-being outcomes across scales. The immune system is a response to a biodiverse environment, and that environment challenges innate immunity and boosts tolerance from cradle to grave.

For example, Haahtela and team in Porto Biomedical Journal describe how early exposure to a microbe-rich farming environment protects from asthma and allergy by constantly shaping the innate immunity response. Haahtela explains why the intersection of the natural world and human microbiome is so important. We are protected by two nested layers of biodiversity: microbiota of the outer layer (soil, natural waters, plants, animals) and inner layer (gut, skin, airways). The inner layer inhabits our body and is colonized from the outer layer. Explosion of human populations along with cultural evolution is profoundly changing our environment and lifestyle. Loss of immunoprotective factors, derived from nature, Haartela says, is a new kind of health risk poorly acknowledged until recently.

The experiment in Finland was the first to explicitly manipulate a child’s urban environment and then test for changes in their microbiome and, in turn, a child’s immune system. The conclusion is that a change in environmental microbes can relatively easily affect a well-established microbiome in children, giving their immune system a boost in the process.

As Science Alert explains, among kids who go outside – playing in the dirt, across the grass, and among the trees – an increase in a microbe called gammaproteobacteria appears to boost the skin’s immune defense, as well as increase helpful immune secretions in the blood and reduce the content of interleukin-17A, which is connected to immune-transmitted diseases.

It makes logical sense then that, if an environment rich in living things impacts on our immunity, then a loss of biodiversity through excessive built structures and their suppression of green spaces could be at least partially responsible for the recent rise in immune-related illnesses. This is because low biodiversity in many contemporary living environments may fail to educate “the immune system and, consequently increase the prevalence of immune-mediated diseases,” the authors outline in the Finnish study.

The idea that biodiversity loss leads to poor microbiota, immune dysfunction, and disease isn’t new. It’s been assumed for the last couple of decades that allergies to pollen, animals, and food demonstrate the harmful immune response caused not by nature excess but by nature deficiency — a lack of protective factors.

Exposure to plants in other ways can help humans to be healthier. A plant-based diet can also support health, as many of its components have anti-inflammatory properties protecting against noncommunicable diseases. Local food and self-produced fruits, vegetables, and roots maintain rich gut microbiota. Many health organizations today are talking up the the gut-brain axis, and associations between gut microbiota and mental disorders have been confirmed.

Our mental and sociocultural links to a biodiverse environment are also strong. Green space can provide mental health benefits and possibly lower risk of psychiatric disorders. Regular access to green spaces has been linked to lower risks of depression and improved concentration and attention. A nation-wide study in Denmark covering >900,000 people shows that children who grew up with the lowest levels of green space had up to 55% higher risk of developing a psychiatric disorder independent from effects of other known risk factors.

Stronger association between accumulated green space and risk during childhood constitutes evidence that prolonged presence of green space is important. Of course, with the complexities inherent in today’s lifestyles and climate damage, it’s not possible to control for all the environmental factors that impact human health. But having the opportunity to become closer to nature seems to be making a real difference in human health through the microbiomes we all-too-often take for granted.

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