Julie Seifert

Green and the Medical Scene

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I hope everyone had a fun and safe St. Patrick’s Day.  I enjoy the “holiday” and adorning myself in all things green and partaking in a tasty stout beer.  But that’s not the green I am going to discuss here.  This green has to do with the environment and cardiovascular disease.

I was fortunate to attend the Sustainable Urban Landscape Symposium at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden last Thursday.  One of the key speakers was Dr. Aruni Bhatnagar, PhD, FAHA, from the University of Louisville.  Dr. Bhatnagar has spent many years studying how toxic substances and environmental pollutants can impact heart disease.  He has a laundry list of accomplishments, including publishing over 280 research papers, commentaries and review articles and participating in more than 50 peer-review panels of the National Institutes of Health.  He currently serves as director of the newly created Envirome Institute (Envirome being a mash up of environment and genome).  The man has serious cred.

To provide some background, I will list some interesting facts that Dr. Bhatnagar presented:

  • By 2030 it is projected that 40.5% of the population will have coronary heart disease.
  • While our genomes only differ by 2.5%, less than 3% of chimps develop atherosclerotic disease.
  • That could mean environment could have a much larger role than genetics.  There could be an environmental “dys-synchrony” or a mismatch between genes and our environment.
  • If we change our environment, could we reduce our risk of heart disease?
  • 60-80% of heart disease and diabetes can be attributed to environment and almost 97% of cancer can be attributed to environment.
  • There are several natural elements that can affect humans
    • Cycle of day and night
    • Rhythms of the seasons
    • Sunlight
    • Latitude
    • Altitude
    • Green spaces (interesting tidbit – where Ash trees perished due to the Emerald Ash Borer, the incidence of cardiovascular disease increased)

So let’s get to the Green of the story.  According to Dr. Bhatnagar, spending MORE time in green spaces:

  • For women, can decrease mortality rates by 12%
  • In England, study showed cardiovascular disease occurs twice as much in less green environments
  • Survival rate after a stroke is higher

But there are many questions left to be answered.  Is it the green environment itself, or could it be attributed to the environment being more conducive to being more active and social, with the result of reducing stress and increasing mental health?  When humans lived and worked on the land, not only were they forced to be more active, but they also worked with others to complete tasks, as modern conveniences were not available yet.  In addition, the constant interaction with nature allowed them to be exposed to many microbes and such, increasing their immunity.  In fact, these microbes were called “old friends”.

Think of how we live today  – we buy our food in a store, live in separate houses, reside in urban areas with pockets of green we call parks (that we visit) or possibly no green space at all, we have air conditioning in the summer to keep us cool (inside), and furnaces in the winter to keep us warm (inside).  How much time do we actually spend outside in nature?  How much time do our kids spend inside playing on the internet instead of playing outside?  This disconnect with nature could cause us to leave our “old friends” behind, lowering our immunity, and possibly even turning our immunity against us (autoimmune diseases).  Dr. Bhatnagar mentioned that children that grow up in natural environments have significantly less cases of asthma.  There seems to be a real connection between health, physical and mental, and spending time in nature.

Dr. Bhatnagar is involved in a study in Louisville involving an elementary school located near a busy highway.  They wanted to see what the effects of a “green barrier” of large trees and shrubs would be on the children’s health.  We know that cars are a major source of air pollution, and that trees are a major contributor to removing air pollution (and are aesthetically pleasing as well!).  The early results seem to indicate positive health improvements since the tree/shrub barrier was installed, and we look forward to the official results being released.

For those that spend time in nature, we know all too well the benefits we derive.  And we spread the word, and encourage others to join us.  And while some are converted, many others call us “tree huggers” and “hippies”.  But when SCIENCE and DOCTORS get involved, ears perk up.

What could be the potential for these kind of findings?  Maybe we wouldn’t clear cut land for subdivisions and instead work the houses in with the land.  Maybe we would be more concerned with natural land being paved over for another strip mall when the one down the street is still empty.  Maybe we would shoo our kids outside and let them get dirty, pick up rocks, splash in the puddles.  We need to reestablish our connection with the land. 

We know this on a global scale as it relates to climate change, and we also know there are many who don’t believe.  But what if we told you your kids could be healthier with more trees?  What if you could reduce your stress by planting a garden that could also feed you and your family with no chemicals?  What if instead of popping a pill to feel better, you took a walk in nature every day–you get all the benefits at no cost with NO side effects.  Reconnecting to nature could be the answer to SO many questions.

What does all this mean for you?

  1. Consider how much time you spend in connection with nature.  Not just the quick jog through the park with your earbuds in.  But listening to the birds – can you even hear any?  Watching the trees change through the season.  Watching a rabbit hop across the yard.
  2. Take action and get outside!  Plant some containers for your balcony, plant some trees in your backyard, visit the park.
  3. Touch the earth.  Walk barefoot.  Hug a tree!
  4. If you have children, lead by example and take them out into nature.  Let them get dirty.  Enroll them in nature camps, sign them up for a program at your local park.  Trade screen time for green time.
  5. Give gratitude to Mother Earth and the natural remedies she provides us at no cost, requesting nothing in return.  However, we do owe her the courtesy of only taking what we need and giving back when we can.

I hope you will join me in making the environment greener – the quality of our lives could literally depend on it.

“Just living is not enough…one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.”
Hans Christian Andersen

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