Sunday, October 19, 2014

Pregnant Women and Their Babies Benefit from Time Outdoors

Are you pregnant or do you know someone who is? Quick, turn off your computer and get outside!

According to researchers at Oregon State University and the University of British Columbia who looked at pregnancy and birth outcomes in more than 64,000 singleton births in Vancouver, British Columbia, women who live within 100 meters of green space such as trees, lots of grass, and other plant life tend to have better pregnancy results.

In particular, pregnant women who spend more time in green spaces are more likely to deliver full-term and higher birth-weight babies. The researchers believe these positive outcomes of green exposure are related to the overall health benefits of spending time in nature, including perhaps reduced blood pressure, stress reduction and lower cortisol levels, as well as the fact that spending time in nature facilitates social support and a sense of belonging (which, as I write about in Field Exercises, has been a very clear benefit for veterans).

Perhaps this helps account for my recent delivery of a full-term, nine-pound baby? (Now you know why I haven't been posting much lately!)

Although the researchers suggest that neighborhood greenness is an important factor (probably because it allows women to easily spend time outdoors), I suspect that any pregnant woman could easily adapt this research to her own life, no matter what type of neighborhood she lives in. It may take more effort, but it would be well worth seeking out and spending time in a park or by the river as much as possible during one’s pregnancy – and afterwards, too. It certainly can’t hurt!

What I’d like to see now is a study on infant sleep and green exposure. When my son was six months old, I came to realize that the more time he spent outdoors during the day, the better he slept at night. This time around, I’m spending as much time as possible with my baby outdoors. It can’t hurt, and if it benefits her nighttime sleep, then all the better! 


Perry Hystad, Hugh W. Davies, Lawrence Frank, Josh Van Loon, Ulrike Gehring, Lillian Tamburic, and Michael Brauer. Residential Greenness and Birth Outcomes: Evaluating the Influence of Spatially Correlated Built-Environment Factors. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2014; DOI: 10.1289/ehp.1308049

Friday, July 25, 2014

Farming Together in the Buduburam Refugee Camp

Over the past few years, most of my research and conversations have been with Canadian and American veterans, but several years ago, I learned the story of a young Liberian man named Morris living in the Buduburam Refugee Camp in Ghana. Morris’s story (told in When Blood and Bones Cry Out by John Paul Lederach and Angela Jill Lederach) is another example of the ways that farming and gardening can provide an important outlet for healing and support to many former combatants. 

Becoming a Child Soldier
When Morris was 13, his father was murdered by rebels, and soon after Morris became a child soldier in the Liberian civil war. Later he also trained other child soldiers to fight in Sierra Leone’s civil war. Eventually, when struck by the realization that his fighting had turned him into an empty shell and that he no longer felt human, Morris escaped to the Buduburam Refugee Camp. As part of his own healing—from both his roles as victim and perpetrator in the Liberian civil war—and to give back to the community in the refugee camp, Morris assembled other child soldiers also living in the camp, and the youngsters built a farm together. 

Farming Together
Today, approximately 200 former child soldiers grow and harvest fruits and vegetables in the camp. All of them, including Morris, continue to carry the stigma of their former roles as combatants and many others in the refugee community continue to see them as rapists and murderers. Accordingly, the healing and recovery process for these young people is anything but easy. They have lived through horrific violence, and many have committed unimaginable acts. As Morris remarked, “It is so hard . . . All you have in your mind is violence. You have been living in violence for so long . . . It doesn’t matter where you are. It’s embedded in you. And it is creative. You can do unimaginable things, terrible things with this creativity, because you have seen so much violence. It takes willpower to transform that. Some of us are working hard to change.” 

And so as they work to change themselves, and to overcome the community stigmatization, the former child soldiers continue to work the land and work toward their own healing. The youths find comfort in both their relationships with one another and in cultivating new life together, and carry hope that the others in the refugee community will see that they have the power to change, to do good, and will one day accept them again into the community.

Lederach, John Paul, and Lederach, Angela Jill. (2010). When Blood and Bones Cry Out: Journeys through the Soundscape of Healing And Trauma. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Human Relationships with Other Animals

Having a visit with my parents' dog, Casey

In recent years, quite a few studies have looked at human relationships with other animals, ranging from animals as companions to their effects on blood pressure, stress, and minor health problems. 

For example, a 2009 study found that compared to a control group, patients with acute depression who spent just thirty minutes with a dog experienced a significant reduction in levels of anxiety.

Dog Owners More Likely to Be Alive One Year after a Heart Attack

A 1995 study published in the American Journal of Cardiology examined the effects of pet ownership and social support on patients’ one-year survival rates after a heart attack. The researchers discovered that heart-attack survivors who were also dog-owners were much less likely to die within one year than those without a dog. Interestingly, being a cat owner did not offer the same protection.

The study also demonstrated that patients who had more social support were more likely to be alive after one year. The researchers suggest that both dogs and social support provide buffers against stress.

Caring for Other Animals

Some studies have also found that pets reduce feelings of loneliness and social isolation.

In my research and conversations with veterans, I’ve learned numerous stories about how a veteran’s a dog has supported him or her through the darkest hours. Animals keep post-traumatic stress survivors focused on the present moment, and provide a reason to get up in the morning—a dog, for example, needs to be fed and taken for a walk.

The act of caring for other animals can help to bring us out of ourselves and become more open to the world around us.

Erika Friedmann and Sue A. Thomas, “Pet Ownership, Social Support, and One-year Survival after Acute Myocardial Infarction in the Cardiac Arrhythmia Suppression Trial (CAST),” The American Journal of Cardiology 76 (1995): 1213-1217.

Andreas O. M. Hoffmann, Ah Hyung Lee, Florian Wertenauer, Roland Ricken, Joanna J. Jansen, Juergen Gallinat, and Undine E. Lang, “Dog-assisted Intervention Significantly Reduces Anxiety in Hospitalized Patients with Major Depression,” European Journal of Integrative Medicine 1 (2009): 145-148.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Playing in the dirt makes you more intelligent

Have you ever noticed how a walk outside seems to clear your head?

In my last post, I shared the research about how a strain of bacteria commonly found in soil, Mycobacterium vaccae (M. vaccae for short), triggers the release of serotonin, which helps to regulate mood.

Serotonin’s role in learning and cognition
In addition to mood, many bodily processes are regulated by serotoninamong them, aggression, appetite, sleep, respiration, and endocrine function.

Serotonin also supports learning and cognition. Knowing this, two researchers at The Sage Colleges, Dorothy Matthews and Susan Jenks, decided to find out whether ingesting live M. vaccae would decrease the stress response in mice, while at the same time improving the mice's learning ability.

And their research found this to be true!

Bacteria in the soil makes us temporarily smarter and less anxious
Mice that ingested live M. vaccae prior to and during Matthews and Jenks’ experiment were able to navigate more quickly through a complex maze—almost twice as fast as the control group!—while also demonstrating fewer anxiety-related behaviors.

But the M. vaccae effects were temporary; Matthews and Jenks tested both groups of mice again three weeks later (after none of the mice had ingested M. vaccae for three weeks), and there was no longer a difference in their maze performance and anxiety levels.

The bottom line
The primary way that we take in M. vaccae is by ingesting or inhaling it while spending time outdoors. This research suggests that continual interaction with natural environments brings the most benefits.

So turn off your computer and get outside. You might just start to feel a bit smarter!

Dorothy M. Matthews, and Susan M. Jenks. (2013). Ingestion of Mycobacterium vaccae decreases anxiety-related behavior and improves learning in mice. Behavioural Processes 96, 27–35.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Nature’s Antidepressant – How working with the soil might boost your spirits

Have you been looking for an excuse to get your hands dirty? If so, here it is!

In 2002, Graham Rook and Laura Brunet published an article called “Give us this day our daily germs,” in which they argued that our modern-day lifestyles in wealthy countries, including both hygiene and antibiotics, have reduced our exposure to organisms, such as mycobacteria, that live in soil and water.

This reduced exposure, they suggest, is improperly activating our immune systems, resulting in higher rates of allergies and disease. And in the past ten years, many researchers have become interested in the ways that the human immune system is triggered by the world outside our bodies.

Bacteria improves quality of life in cancer patients
Of particular importance are some of the studies examining the effects of Mycobacterium vaccae (M. vaccae)—a strain of bacteria commonly found in soil. For example, while testing the effects of heat-killed M. vaccae on lung cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, oncologists made an unexpected discovery: 

The bacteria did not seem to affect patients’ survival rates, but patients did report an improved quality of life, including better cognitive function and a sense of vitality, as well as some relief of both the chemotherapy-related treatment symptoms and cancer symptoms. 

Bacteria in soil triggers release of serotonin 
Serotonin is vital to nearly all of our physical and behavioral processes, including mood regulation, and many common antidepressant drugs are designed to affect serotonin levels.

Neuroscientists at the University of Bristol decided to investigate the oncologists' findings further, and discovered that heat-killed M. vaccae altered emotional behavior in mice. Specifically, the bacteria produced antidepressant-like effects by triggering neurons in the brain to produce serotonin.

Chris Lowry, lead author of the University of Bristol study, in his conversations with the media, noted that such studies are leading to a better understanding of the connections between healthy immune systems and mental health. “They also leave us wondering if we shouldn’t all be spending more time playing in the dirt,” he also said.

Which leads me to ask:
Have you had your dose of M. vaccae today?

Stay tuned for my next post about how regular contact with M. vaccae might also make you smarter...

Lowry, C.A. et al. (2007). Identification of an Immune-Responsive Mesolimbocortical Serotonergic System: Potential Role in Regulation of Emotional Behavior. Neuroscience 146, 756-772.

Medical News Today. (2007, April 2) Soil Bacteria Work in Similar Way to Antidepressants.

O’Brien, M.E., et al. (2004). SRL172 (killed Mycobacterium vaccae) in addition to standard chemotherapy improves quality of life without affecting survival, in patients with advanced non-small-cell lung cancer: phase III results. Annals of Oncology 15(6), 906-914.

Rook, Graham and Brunet, Laura. (2002). Give us this day our daily germs. Biologist 49(4), 145-149.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Military Veterans and the Outdoors

A few weeks ago, I was excited to learn about a new study involving military veterans and the outdoors, conducted by researchers Jason Duvall and Rachel Kaplan at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment.

The results? Veterans who participated in outdoor programs—specifically multi-day camping and hiking trips—reported an improved sense of mental wellbeing, as well as feeling less socially isolated. (In the interest of full disclosure, the study was funded by the Sierra Club, which runs the Military Family and Veterans Initiative, an outdoor program for veterans and their families.)

I was not surprised by the results—they align with what I hear every day from the veterans I talk to: that being in nature—whether it’s camping, hiking, biking, canoeing, fishing, farming and gardening, or spending time with animals such as horses and dogs—is helping them to manage their post-traumatic symptoms, and to feel more connected to their communities and life in general. And in many ways, the study’s results parallel the other research I’ve been writing about in this blog.

But a common problem I hear from veterans is that despite their anecdotal reports, there’s very little funding available for these types of activities. And why is there no funding? Because according to the funders (not the veterans), there’s no proof that these activities work(!).

So that’s why this study is exciting. It focuses specifically on veterans, and provides the numbers and proof that funders require. In fact, the reason the Sierra Club sponsored this research was to study whether their Military Family and Veterans Initiative and similar programs were benefiting veterans. From the anecdotal stories of veteran participants, the Sierra Club knew that their programs were important, but hoped that quantitative analysis and results would further support their work.

Most interesting? Many of the veterans continued to experience an improved sense of wellbeing a month after their excursion, and those who were suffering the most seemed to report the most improvement. The researchers acknowledge that more studies are necessary, but this one, at least, is a start.


Duvall, Jason and Rachel Kaplan. (2013). Exploring the Benefits of Outdoor Experiences on Veterans: Report prepared for the Sierra Club Military Families and Veterans Initiative. Retrieved from:

U-M study of veterans finds links between outdoor activities, improved mental health. Retrieved from:

U-M, Sierra Club to study links between outdoor experience, veterans’ mental health. Retrieved from: