Japanese forest bathing

Last week our family hiked at Bald Hill. We had masks at the ready and were careful to socially distance from other hikers. We did the pasture loop, which is short, with a wide paved path that skirts around most of the hill. Despite forecasts of sunny, warm weather, it started to sprinkle as we left the car. 

The sprinkle turned to rain as we left the pasture for the trees, but after a bit it stopped. To be honest, the damp was about the only thing I noticed as we walked.

I’m kicking myself today, because we missed a magnificent opportunity to experience what in Japanese is called “shinrin-yoku”, or forest bathing.

Dr. Qing Li , author of Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, describes it like this, “In Japan, we practice something called forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku. Shinrin in Japanese means “forest,” and yoku means “bath.” So shinrin-yoku means bathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through our senses.”

He explains, “This is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging. It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.”

The Japanese aren’t the only ones who have discovered the health benefits of communing with nature. There are many studies that have documented how spending time outdoors lowers stress for everyone and, among other things, improves concentration for children with ADHD. You’ll find details and some great links for more reading here

How to Forest Bathe

So how does one “forest bathe”? First, find a forest with even walking paths. You can go it alone, or join a walk led by a certified forest bathing guide.

Walk slowly and stop often. This is exactly what I neglected to do on our visit to Bald Hill. Take time to relax and to notice the environment. Spend time under the trees, soaking up the smells of the forest. Dr Li’s research has found that the chemicals released by the hinoki cypress tree boosts the immune system.

If there are places to sit quietly under the trees, take advantage of them. Listen to the sounds of the forest, observe the birds overhead, the plants growing on the forest floor, and insects scurrying along fallen branches and leaves.

Take a few slow, deep breaths and notice the smell of the forest. Those smells include the beneficial chemicals released by the trees.

Me, I’m wishing I’d been a bit more conscious of the world around me as I walked between those raindrops, trying to keep up with my energetic teens. 

How about you? Have you had an opportunity to spend more time outdoors this month?

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own. She loves writing on parenting and early childhood education. You can learn more about her at  www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

 

Sleep, sleep debt, and mental health

a woman lays face down on a bed that is covered in a white sheetLack of sleep, also known as sleep debt, affects both our physical and mental health.  Studies show that sleep debt affects numerous parts of our body, including our brain. In our brain, lack of sleep actually causes brain activity to slow down.  

Sleep cycles at my house are dramatically different in the summer than during the school year.  With a house full of tweens and teens, removing the need to get up in the morning has invited my teens and tweens to stay up long past their typical bedtime.  

They stay up until midnight, then sleep in the next day.  Sometimes I find myself insisting they get up as the clock chimes noon.  Yesterday we dragged the 14-year-old out of bed at 10:30am for a family trip to the blueberry patch.  He was not pleased. He complained about feeling rushed out the door. He slumped into his seat in the car, intent on ignoring those around him. But the ride out helped improve his mood.  By the time we were all in the berry patch he had waded through the worst of his sleep deprivation. 

We all know what not getting enough sleep does to us the next day.  We are grouchy. Moving through the day feels like swimming against the current.  It’s hard to get things done. We are short with the kids, tend to eat even though we are not hungry, and have no motivation for exercise.

That is not a surprise to researchers who study what lack of sleep does to people. 

Describing one study, Yuval Nir, a sleep researcher at Tel Aviv University said, “We were fascinated to observe how sleep deprivation dampened brain cell activity. Unlike the usual rapid reaction, the neurons responded slowly, fired more weakly and their transmissions dragged on longer than usual.”  

You are not imagining things – when you are tired you really do think more slowly.

What’s more, not getting sufficient sleep for long periods of time also reduces mental and emotional resilience.  Lack of sleep can lead to negative thinking and emotional vulnerability and can make problems with anger, depression or anxiety worse.

A survey of sleep studies done by the Department of Research at the California Institute of Behavioral Neurosciences & Psychology notes, “Sleep is an essential part of our lives. The typical person needs seven to eight hours of sleep each night to maintain peak mental and physical health.”

They continue, “Less than seven to eight hours of sleep can be harmful to human health. Getting less than adequate sleep is known as sleep deprivation. When an individual has multiple consecutive days of sleep deprivation, they enter “sleep debt,” which is a cumulative effect of insufficient sleep for any period of time. The effect of sleep deprivation on mood has been well-documented. The changes in mood that have been linked to sleep deprivation include anxiety, depression, mood swings, etc.

Sleep deprivation appears to impact adults, adolescents, and children in similar ways. Sleep deprivation can exacerbate pre-existing mood disturbances, such as anger, depression, and anxiety, and can lead to confusion, fatigue, and lack of vigor. Even just one sleepless night correlates with these changes in function.”

How much sleep do you need?

It’s not always easy to get as much sleep as we should. Adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night.  Recommended nightly sleep is 10 hours for teens and between 10 and 13 hours per night for children over the age of 3.  (Children under 3 need even more.) Missing even 15 minutes of sleep each night can accumulate over time and result in sleep debt which affects both mental and physical health.

So how do you take corrective action if you or your children are suffering the effects of too little sleep?  Sleep experts recommend:

  1. Rather than sleeping later, try going to bed earlier each night.  Going to bed at the same time each night, as well as following the same routine getting ready for sleep, can help with falling asleep.
  2. Optimize the sleeping environment by eliminating electronics (tv, ipads, phones, laptops) in the bedroom.
  3. Consider room darkening shades and motion-sensing nightlights to minimize the amount of ambient light in the room overnight.
  4. Lower the temperature of your sleeping environment. Body temperature drops as we sleep, so the optimal temperature for the bedroom is between 65 and 68 degrees overnight.
  5. While naps can help reduce the total amount of sleep debt, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.  Adults should limit naps to a 20-minute catnap or a 60-90 minute power nap. Any more can create problems getting to sleep later in the day.  

Want to know more about the physiological effects of sleep debt?  Check out this article from LiveScience.com.

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

The Link Between Food and Mental Health

Family eating healthy food at a tableThe choices we make when we eat affects more than just our weight, heart, and  physical health. The role of nutrition in mental health has been shown to be just as important.

Studies of diet and exercise for mental health have shown a significant link between food and mental health.  What we eat can affect our mood, how we feel, and how well we cope with stress in life. Says Dr. Eva Selhub,  “Think about it. Your brain is always “on.” It takes care of your thoughts and movements, your breathing and heartbeat, your senses — it works hard 24/7, even while you’re asleep. 

This means your brain requires a constant supply of fuel. That “fuel” comes from the foods you eat — and what’s in that fuel makes all the difference. 

Put simply, what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.”

For many years I worked in an office, surrounded by others, all of us in cubicles. I had a cup of coffee at home, then another when I got to work.  I worked productively throughout the morning, which I attributed to being a “morning person”. I was always productive and full of energy at the start of the day.

After lunch I resumed work, a little less energetically. By 3pm I’d hit an energy low. Problem solving became more difficult.  So I’d have a diet cola mid-afternoon. It gave me a boost for the last stretch of the workday.

I’d commute home, have dinner, and by 8pm I hit another low.  My brain was mush and I was exhausted. Every day was the same – clear headed and mentally energetic in the morning, brain fog by 3pm, caffeine-assist mid-afternoon, and crash by 8pm.

But then, during the height of popularity for detox ‘cleansing’, I did a 3 day juice ‘cleanse’ over a weekend.  I spent the weekend with a classic caffeine withdrawal (excruciating) headache. But by Monday morning I was on the other side and the headache was gone.  I hated the idea of having endured that headache for nothing. So I decided to stay off the caffeine.

The impact of that one small change in my diet was astonishing.  Without the caffeine, my energy level for the entire day remained steady.  My brain was fully functioning all the way to bedtime. I wasn’t crashing mid-afternoon, so didn’t need the soda to make it to the end of the work day.  I got to the other side of the dinner hour and still had mental and physical energy. It was amazing to enjoy the evening, instead of watching the clock as I held up my weary head at least as long as the kids were still up.

I was amazed at how the caffeine I’d been drinking – just two cups of coffee in the morning and a soda in the afternoon – had impacted my mental and physical health for the entire day.  I was happier and healthier without the caffeine.

What we eat really does affect how we feel and how well we cope.  Says licensed nurse Carolyn Denton, “The food we eat gives our bodies the “information” and materials they need to function properly. If we don’t get the right information, our metabolic processes suffer and our health declines.  If we get too much food, or food that gives our bodies the wrong instructions, we can become overweight, undernourished, and at risk for the development of diseases and conditions, such as arthritis, diabetes, and heart disease.

Functional Medicine practitioners examine the role of nutrition in chronic disease, they look at multiple systems, such as the digestive system, the immune system, and the detoxification system, because of the interconnections between those systems. For instance, because 80% of the immune system is contained in the gastrointestinal system, a person’s issues with immunity could be related to faulty digestion.”

Many studies have also looked at the impact of nutrition on young children.  A review of the research done in 2014 found that a poor diet is linked to poorer mental health in children and adolescents.   

They conclude that there is an important relationship between diet patterns or quality and mental health early in life.  The evidence also indicates that what we – and our children – eat may play an important part in preventing or managing mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), and dementia.

Says the UK Mental Health Foundation, “Just like the heart, stomach, and liver, the brain is an organ that requires different amounts of complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins, minerals and water to remain healthy.” 

Included in this report is a chart of these essential nutrients, the impact they have on our mental health, and the foods that can increase their presence in our bodies.  (see sidebar)

Not surprisingly, good nutrition includes fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, meat, fish and dairy.  These foods, known to benefit our heart and liver, also benefit our minds, memory, and emotions.  

And while a healthy diet helps everyone’s mental health and brain function, for infants and children under the age of 3, whose bodies and brains are growing more rapidly than they ever will again, good nutrition also feeds their ability to learn, setting them up for a lifetime of benefit.