It is that time again. Time to start planning the extracurricular activities for the year. As parents in today’s world we are inundated with possibilities for our children. Music lessons, sports, chess club, swimming lessons and the list goes on and on. Extracurricular activities have become a major part of parenting and childhood. I just watched a woman on a popular morning news show talk about tips for picking the right activities for children. I was not surprised that she completely left off the most important activity for children- not even a mention. With our current race to get our children involved in the most promising activities, we have forgotten the one activity that can enrich, teach and heal our children: nature.
Rekindle the Relationship with Nature
A recent two year study out of England showed the dismal relationship our children have with nature. Researchers found that more than 10 percent of children haven’t spent time in any natural setting for at least one year. A natural setting was described as a park, forest, beach, or other natural environment. (1) Nature has so much to offer our children and we need to prioritize it.
Nature Is Filled With Health Promoting Microbes
First of all, being immersed in nature allows children to come into contact with a variety of microbes that benefit their health and development. Our gut microbiome has a dramatic impact on our overall health and making sure our children have a diverse and healthy population of gut bacteria will go far in supporting the health and development of our little ones. One of the best ways to do this is to allow your child to be introduced to the trillion+ microbes that reside in the soil. Microbes, like M. vaccae, that have been found in nature act as natural anti-depressants and even powerful antibiotics. (2,3)
“In this preliminary research, we show that mice fed live M. vaccae prior to and during a maze learning task demonstrated a reduction in anxiety-related behaviors and maze completion time, when tested at three maze difficulty levels over 12 trials for four weeks. Treated mice given M. vaccae in their reward completed the maze twice as fast as controls, and with reduced anxiety-related behaviors. In a consecutive set of 12 maze trials without M. vaccae exposure, treated mice continued to run the maze faster for the first three trials, and with fewer errors overall, suggesting a treatment persistence of about one week. Following a three-week hiatus, a final maze run revealed no differences between the experimentals and controls. Additionally, M. vaccae-treated mice showed more exploratory head-dip behavior in a zero maze, and M. vaccae treatment did not appear to affect overall activity levels as measured by activity wheel usage. Collectively, our results suggest a beneficial effect of naturally delivered, live M. vaccae on anxiety-related behaviors and maze performance, supporting a positive role for ambient microbes in the immunomodulation of animal behavior.”
Is Nature Good For The Brain?
In Japan and Sweden forest schools are becoming more popular. Forest schools are outside based schools where children spend a significant time outside, rain or shine. This time outside has been shown to improve children’s mental and physical health including their concentration, cognitive and executive function. (4) Forest baths are also becoming more popular with people of all ages. Initial research out of Tokyo found that forest baths, time in nature ranging from a day to 2-3 days, can increase NK cells which boosts the body’s immune system responsible for fighting infections and cancer. (4) Recent research has shown that forest bathing can decrease blood pressure, heart rate, sympathetic nerve activity as well as lower anxiety and depression. (5)
“1. Forest therapy can decrease blood pressure, heart rate, sympathetic nerve activity, and levels of stress hormones, such as urinary adrenaline and noradrenaline, and can increase parasympathetic nerve activity, suggesting its preventive effect on hypertension. 2. Forest therapy can also decreace the scores for anxiety, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion and increase the score for vigor in the Profile of Mood States (POMS) test, suggesting its preventive effect on mental depression. 3. Forest therapy can increase the activity and number of human natural killer (NK) cells and the intracellular levels of anticancer proteins, suggesting its preventive effect on cancers. 4. These findings suggest that forest therapy may have preventive effects on lifestyle-related diseases.”
Time in nature has been shown to improve healing and outcomes in hospitals, improve cognitive/executive function in children playing in natural settings, and to decrease pain and anxiety in adults as well as lower cortisol and inflammatory levels in the body. (6,7) Microbes in the dirt have been found to activate neurons in the brain to produce serotonin, the feel good neurotransmitter. (8) It has even been shown to increase feelings of empathy and love. People shown nature images had the areas of the brain that are responsible for empathy and love light up. (9) This amazing effect that nature has of lowering stress hormones and inflammatory molecules while at the same time boosting immune function and positive emotions like empathy and love makes it an important activity for our children.
Our Connection with Nature
It is clear that there is a much deeper connection here at play than just the gut microbiome. We need to honor that connection and make sure our children are out in nature daily. It doesn’t have to be hard. Having the kids play outside daily, going deeper into nature as a family once a weekend, even bringing more plants into our home all have a big impact on our health and the health of our children. If there is one truly must-do activity for your children have it be time spent in nature.
Catherine Clinton ND, is a graduate of the National College of Natural Medicine (NCNM) in Portland, Oregon. She is a board licensed naturopathic doctor currently practicing at her private clinic in Eugene, Oregon.
Dr. Clinton is a speaker on integrative medicine and gut health and has authored several publications in those areas. She is founder of WellFuture, a line of nutritional supplements for infants and children that uses organic, whole food ingredients and the greenest, bioavailable nutrients.
When in medical school Catherine was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that effects the gastrointestinal tract, leaving her with a special interest in autoimmune diseases and gastrointestinal conditions. Accessing how the multiple systems of the body are working together is a vital piece of Dr. Clinton’s practice. With a practice focused on gastrointestinal and immune health Dr. Clinton utilizes the latest in functional medicine combined with nutrition, herbal medicine and lifestyle interventions to treat a variety of digestive complaints, autoimmune diseases and pediatric conditions.
With the birth of her own children Dr. Clinton became passionate about the prevention of these chronic diseases and conditions by addressing the immune systems and gastrointestinal health of our children. Catherine is deeply committed to the optimal health of babies, children and families everywhere and loves to interact with her readers through her blog and social media. Her blog can be found at www.wellfuture.com/blogs/news
(2) Matthews DM, Jenks SM. Ingestion of Mycobacterium vaccae decreases anxiety-related behavior and improves learning in mice. Behav Processes. 2013 Jun;96:27-35.
(3) Losee L. Ling, Tanja Schneider, Aaron J. Peoples, Amy L. Spoering, Ina Engels, Brian P. Conlon, Anna Mueller, Till F. Schäberle, Dallas E. Hughes, Slava Epstein, Michael Jones, Linos Lazarides, Victoria A. Steadman, Douglas R. Cohen, Cintia R. Felix, K. Ashley Fetterman, William P. Millett, Anthony G. Nitti, Ashley M. Zullo, Chao Chen, Kim Lewis. A new antibiotic kills pathogens without detectable resistance. Nature 517,455–459,22 January 2015
(4) Qing Li. Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function. Environ Health Prev Med. 2010 Jan; 15(1): 9–17.
(5) Li Q1, Kawada T. Possibility of clinical applications of forest medicine. Nihon Eiseigaku Zasshi. 2014;69(2):117-21.
(7) Park, S., & Mattson, R. (2009). Ornamental indoor plants in hospital rooms enhanced health outcomes of patients recovering from surgery. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 15(9), 975-980.
(8) Lowry CA, et al., Identification of an immune-responsive mesolimbocortical serotonergic system: Potential role in regulation of emotional behavior, Neuroscience (2007), doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2007.01.067
(9) Weinstein, N. (2009). Can nature make us more caring? Effects of immersion in nature on intrinsic aspirations and generosity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 1315.