Nature Deficit Disorder – How Nature Affects Longevity
As I fly in to LAX I look over the huge megalopolis in which I grew up. The perfect east-west and north-south grid of streets is very familiar. I recognize certain buildings. I can see nicely-groomed parks. I get my bearings from the freeway system, both from the air, and on the ground.
I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles — I was a “city boy.” I didn’t get dirty, play in the mud, or do anything except in a clean sandbox or park. The lawn was clipped. My world was paved. I always wore shoes and had some sort of wheels under me (bicycle, skateboard). I breathed smog a lot. In those days we had “smog alerts” and were told to stay indoors and not exercise. I would go out on my skateboard anyway, and my lungs would burn. I didn’t even get clean air! I was insulated from nature in so many ways.
Today, we are so easily separated from nature. Many things we called “nature” weren’t really wild. We had pets, including chickens, rabbits, and a few mallard ducks. We grew gardens in nice rows, pulling out all the weeds. Indoors, I still don’t have any real plants because they invariably die. Too much water, not enough water, I don’t know! All my “plants” are plastic – but they look so real!
I am grateful that my parents took my siblings and me out to the mountains, the beach, parks, streams, and other natural places at times. Nature is part of who we are. The Earth is part of us. We are part of our Mother Earth. We cannot leave. If we go out into space, off the Earth, we must take a piece of her with us. Our bodies are renewing from the earth all the time. We take in carbon and minerals from plants, which they get from air and soil, and creates oxygen for us to breathe. However, there is more. Our energy comes from the earth, processed from the sun. We are so intricately connected, and yet we try to insulate ourselves from the very thing that brings life. The consequences of this can be devastating.
What is Nature Deficit Disorder?
Children who don’t regularly experience life in a natural environment lose certain abilities. As time goes on children spend more time indoors. Even children who live near forests and mountains are spending more time indoors. The average American child 5-15 years old spends 5-7 hours in front of a screen each day. Moreover, according to the National Institutes of Health increased screen time can increase the risk of:
- Heart disease
- Sleep problems
- Attention problems
These are exactly the issues that comprise “Nature Deficit Disorder” a made-up term to stress the importance for kids to be out in nature. It’s not a real disorder, or a medical diagnosis, rather it is a term to describe the deficiencies children experience when they aren’t outdoors in a natural environment. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, states, “Nature-deficit disorder contributes to a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, conditions of obesity, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses.” Much of this stems from lack of movement, since nature presents opportunities for physical activity. However, there are many other lessons to be learned in nature. In Japan there has been a movement since the 1980s of “forest bathing,” where people go into the forest for hours to days to “take a bath in nature.” The research has indicated many benefits of stress reduction.
Stress causes many problems in children, including obesity, poor mental function, depression, anxiety, OCD, eating disorders, and poor social skills, to name a few. In fact, stress does more damage than poor diet or lack of exercise. By far, stress contributes the most to physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and psychological problems.
For these reasons, children need to experience nature. We cannot understand anything we do not personally experience. A video of “Those Amazing Animals” is not the same as being there and experiencing them. We can see all the pictures, but it isn’t the same as the experience of being there.
Last week my fourteen-year-old son and I went camping overnight. As we walked along the trail, there were clean, perfect two-inch sand pits beside the trail. I wondered what they were, and found there was an insect at the bottom. The larva of the antliondigs a pit as a sand-trap for ants and other bugs. When an ant goes over the edge, it rolls down the hill and cannot crawl out because of the steep walls of sand. The antlion is waiting under the sand at the bottom, and eats the trapped ants. Bugs making sand traps — how amazing is that!
Nature for Mental Health
Nature is our instructor. From plants, to insects, to large mammals, we learn from what they do. Birds taught man to fly, or at least that it was possible. In a process called “biomimicry,” engineers can look at how things are done in nature. They have designed everything from modern conveniences to getting rid of trash. Skyscrapers have been engineered like bamboo.Indeed, much of what we know comes from the infinite variety of nature.
Intelligence comes from testing limits. We test our limits in nature because all nature is set up to test every limit of life – cold, hot, wet, dry, feast, famine. There is no limit that cannot be tested in nature, building our mental abilities. As they develop, children who have more experiences with nature have more intelligence and creativity. Nature provides infinite variability, whereas in man-made areas everything is the same. Another movie with the same plot, another house with three bedrooms, another paved parking lot, another video game, and so forth. There is so much to learn in nature!
In nature we have rocks and trees to climb, which dramatically increases intelligence. Climbing a rock is not the same as climbing stairs or a handicap ramp. Climbing trees requires skills. Every tree is different, every limb is different, there is much more thought that has to go into climbing a tree. We have to test the limb to be sure it won’t break, that it will hold our weight. We need to be looking to the next limb and know if we can stretch to reach it.
Nature for Stress Reduction
At home we can easily get overwhelmed with so much to do, and constant entertainment. The mind and body don’t have time to relax and re-charge. Even when we are “relaxing” at home it is stressful. An unfocused mind is a stressed mind. We need to have focus and attention to prevent our minds from seeking danger by default.
Nature tells us how to relax and avoid stress by keeping the mind focused. The antlion builds a sand trap and waits. The spider spins a web and waits. If you have ever been fishing, you cast in your line, and wait. The quiet time allows us to reflect on our lives, to learn who we are. Quiet focus can take away stress, giving time to think about things. Nature provides time. There is time. The only clock is the sun. While it is day, we can do what we need to do, and at night we let go and relax.
I have many patients who suffer from anxiety and depression because of adrenal fatigue. One cure for adrenal fatigue is to go out in nature without a clock.
- Go to bed with the sun and wake up with the sun
- Eat breakfast in the morning and skip dinner
This will get people on track, making them anabolic (building-up) instead of catabolic (breaking-down). Only thirty minutes per day in nature can help people:
- Make more melatonin
- Make more human growth hormone
- Make more other anabolic hormones,
- Improve sleep
- And reduce stress hormones.
Decreasing stress is especially important for children. Nature provides freedom of movement that takes away all the stresses of modern life. There is no “have to,” like homework or chores. Children can integrate all their faculties, including emotional, physical, and spiritual senses.
Nature for Emotional Health
Nature teaches us the greatest emotional lessons. When the rain destroys a spider’s web, the spider doesn’t get angry or discouraged, it just makes another one. All nature is patient and forgiving. There are no judgments on what is done, it is just done. Nature accepts what is. The reality of death is accepted as a fact, and nature moves on. Nature responds to devastating fires in California every year by growing back. Within a few years, there are few traces of the burn.
Out in nature it never helps to hold back, or wallow in self-pity. Life goes on. Everything in nature is looking forward. Everything is about growth, and life. Nature is the perfect example of resilience, teaching us the lessons of moving forward despite obstacles and setbacks. We are almost required to learn emotional flexibility while in nature.
Nature for Physical Health
Nature can have a great effect on the physical development of children. The ever-changing and constantly uneven surfaces train the muscle-memory to be ready for anything. Walking along a road is good, but a trail with rocks, twists, and turns gives the physical body much more strength and resilience. Climbing rocks and running up and down mountains builds more strength, agility, balance, and bone mass than running on a road. This becomes more important as we age – what we build up in youth, we continue in old age. The strength of our bones that we build in our youth will keep us from getting osteoporosis in our twilight years.
Getting out in nature, fording streams, jumping rocks, and walking ledges helps us to understand our physical limits. We come to know about our endurance, balance, and strength. Since being out in nature requires us to use muscles, we will naturally build strength.
Also, our senses are sharpened. We can begin to feel the change in temperature of the air. There are many different smells and tastes. Hearing is improved as we distinguish all the different sounds of birds and animals. Most of all, nature is quiet. We can be still. Vision is improved and sharpened as well. People exposed to sunshine have better eyesight than those who are always indoors.
Nature for Spiritual Health
It’s no wonder prophets of all time have traveled up into a mountain to talk with God. Somehow, He is there. When I was 12 years old, my dad, my two older brothers and I went with some Boy Scouts on a fifty-mile hike in the High Sierras in California. The trail was hard. I had a heavy backpack. As the trail rose to high altitudes, I got altitude sickness. My dad stayed back with me while the rest went on to camp. When I felt better, we followed. A couple days later we were near a peak of twelve thousand feet. We camped by a meadow with a small lake. I walked up a hill by the camp, alone. I was the youngest boy there, and my brothers didn’t want me to “bother” them. At the top of the hill, I looked out over the meadow with the snow-capped peak reflected in the lake. It was so beautiful! Breathtaking! I remember looking up at the peak and I knew there was a God. I don’t know how I knew at such a young age — I just knew for sure.
Nature is our servant, given to us to use and to take care of. We create things that are the same. We make every dish in our cupboard the same. Our food needs to taste the same every time we go to McDonalds. We like what is familiar. God is different. Nature has the signature of God on every level. No two things in nature are identical. No two snowflakes are the same, no two sunsets are alike, no two leaves are exactly alike, indeed, nothing in nature is a perfect twin. There is nothing boring about nature.
Nature tells us about the Universe, and our place in it. No two people are exactly alike either, everyone is different, and all are needed and loved.
Why You Should Experience Nature
Nature Deficit Disorder is not a diagnosis or an illness, but rather the deficits that come to children, individually and collectively, who are not exposed to nature. They miss-out on certain developmental milestones that are only found in nature. Those who are not bathed in nature are more likely to have many different symptoms of anxiety, depression, as well as the problems associated with obesity and inactivity.
Shut off the computer, put aside social media, stop snacking on Cheetos, and go outside. If you live in the city, find the nearest trail where you can hike. Take the kids camping to where there is no cell service. If you live in the desert, take them for a walk in the early morning or late afternoon. Go swimming in a stream. Take time to be away from the insulation of the city, let them touch the earth, and climb rocks and trees. For many, this will require some planning and effort, but I can assure everyone, iVALE LA PENA! (it’s worth it)