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Japanese Wisdom – How Nature Can Restore Your Health

The following is Chapter 7 of my new book, Man Alive: Free your mind. Reclaim your health. Discover your true nature. The book is available on Amazon and other major retailers. Click here for more details.

 

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better”.
– Albert Einstein

 

In the early 1980s, a radical idea was put forth to the country of Japan that would revolutionise their health care philosophy. This proposal was so far-out that it took over 15 years for medical journals to catch up. It would be one of the greatest discoveries in preventative medicine of all time. This radical concept is known as forest bathing. It seems like common sense, but forest bathing, otherwise known as shinrin-yoku, which translates to “taking in the forest atmosphere”, is now medically recognised as having profoundly healing effects on human physiology(28,29). That’s right, spending time in nature is good for you. Some of the significant healing effects of shinrin-yoku include:

  1. Reduced cortisol levels(30).
  2. Improved sight and hearing(31).
  3. Boosting the immune system(31).
  4. Reducing pulse rate and blood pressure(29).
  5. Reducing cerebral hyperactivity(29).
  6. Improved focus and concentration(29).
  7. Decreased inflammation(31).
  8. Improved sleep(30).
  9. Increased pain tolerance(31).

The above list of benefits nearly includes – either directly or indirectly – most physiological processes in the body. There is likely not one part of you that does not benefit from spending time in nature. Let’s dive a little deeper into why this might be the case by exploring what happens to your body when you take in the forest air.

When we gaze amongst clouds, the ocean, rustling leaves or toward a campfire, our eyes tend to dance from one unfocused frame of motion to another. Staring upon these natural phenomena is mesmerising. How many times have you been able to stare into the world of fire for minutes on end without blinking? The reason for this is because your eyes cannot focus, and the muscles that control your eye’s lens can relax, which also allows your brain activity to slow down. A reduction in brain waves has been shown to improve cognitive function and concentration and lead to greater feelings of happiness(32).

The natural world is loudest during the morning inside a rain forest at about 32 decibels. If you’ve ever woken up deep in the jungles of Asia or Latin America, you would know how terrifyingly loud this can be. Even more terrifying is that most anthropogenic (human-made) noises, especially in cities, are between 80-120 decibels. This noise is many times louder than our ears have evolved with and can lead to chronic cortisol overload and hypertonic muscles. This can create an excessively tight jaw and abdomen, and somewhat more obviously, permanent hearing damage(31).

When walking in the forest, there is that distinct smell of living, breathing plant biosphere. One of these smells is a group of chemicals known as phytoncides. Plants produce phytoncides to ward off insects, but science has discovered that these natural ‘pesticides’ actually enhance the functions of our immune system, specifically our natural killer cells(28). Just 12-hours spent in the forest can increase the number of natural killer cells in circulation for up to 7 days afterwards(29). These immune cells are known for fighting off cancerous and precancerous cells. There are also immune boosting parasites and bacteria that thrive on the living matter of trees and in the dirt.

The immune regulating effects continue.  While walking in the forest, our body reduces the number of pro-inflammatory cytokines such as interleukin-6 (IL-6) and TNF-alpha(29). Chronically elevated levels of these cytokines, or chemical messengers, are associated with chronic inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

Taking it a step further, there is the option to get slightly more intimate with nature via barefoot walking.  You would likely do this on the beach, but in the forest, it’s much rarer to see someone take off their hiking boots and trudge through the woods. After all, there are snakes, and it is terribly dirty.

Unfortunately, though, you’re not allowing your feet to connect directly with the earth. This connection between foot and floor is where an exchange of electrons occurs. Through the normal physiological process, our body builds up an increased level of electromagnetic charge(31). In tribal times, we were connected with the planet every day, however, in today’s culture, we sometimes don’t get to dump our electromagnetic waste into the earth for a whole day.

In fact, many apartment dwellers in busy cities may not touch their skin with an earthed structure for days on end. Placing your palms and feet on the bare earth can have a tremendously calming effect on your nervous system. This process is known as earthing and has been shown to reduce inflammation, and chronic stress as well as improves sleep and pain tolerance(31).

While growing up in the sunny, active, beachside city of Perth, Western Australia, I would spend the majority of my time outside, totally barefoot. I developed strong skin and muscles on my feet and ankles and grew connected with the earth. I moved to the inner-city Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, Victoria, where there isn’t a beach for many kilometres, and let’s just say it’s a little more ‘grunge’. Over time my feet became soft and weak, and I had lost much of my connection with nature. Now on trips outside the city, I relish in every opportunity I can to take my shoes off and walk on the bare earth. I encourage you to do the same.

If getting your feet dirty is not your thing, there are sandals called Earth Runners that allow a direct connection between the earth and your feet. To understand this for yourself, next time you are at a picnic in the park or walking on the beach barefoot, pay close attention to how you feel. You may realise a deeper connection to your humanness.

New information will continue to emerge, which tells us that interacting with the biosphere is beneficial to our health. For example, the sun gives us vitamin D, but you can’t  just take a vitamin D pill and get all of the benefits of the sun.   This is because particular types of UV radiation also decrease inflammation and your risk for demyelinating diseases like multiple sclerosis(31). Conversely, when we expose ourselves to chilly weather, our body reacts by contracting the muscles in our skin and the blood vessels beneath. This is the feeling of being alive.

 

We don’t yet know all the benefits of interacting with nature.

 

From the warmth of the sun, the cold of the wind, the water,  or the complete orchestra of nature’s sounds, there are so many possible encounters that your body can have with biology. As eco-biomechanist, Katy Bowman says, “We are missing out on an unquantifiable number of interactions with nature, and our physiology is the worse for it”(31).

I once stood knee deep in the surf of Bondi Beach, New South Wales, Australia, for 20 minutes. I was amongst a group of movement students with the renowned teacher, Ido Portal. We were instructed to stare out into the ocean and try not to move a muscle. “Don’t blink, don’t even swallow,” I remember him saying. As we stood there gazing out onto the crashing waves, time began to disintegrate. I became acutely aware of every sensation of my body from the sounds of kids playing off in the distance, to the sand collapsing beneath my feet. Tears began to fall down my face, and I felt a deep sense of peace wash over me. Nature had taken me in.

I want you to follow the way. I want you to spend more time in nature. Our evolution as humans has seen us develop biological benefits from the flora around us, and we are denying its benefits by distancing ourselves from it. If you live in the city, put it on your calendar to take a few hours on the weekend to venture out to the forest, to the beach or a mountaintop. This reconnection should happen at least once per month. Leave your phone at home or in the car. Go alone, or with friends or family. Take off your shoes and look up at the sky and smile. This is the mysterious phenomenon called life. It is all around you, and it is incredibly healing. All you need to do is engage with it.

 

References:

28. Tsunetsugu, Y., Park, J., & Miyazaki, Y. (2010). Trends in research related to “Shinrin-yoku”(taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing) in Japan. Environmental health and preventive medicine, 15(1), 27.

29. Park, J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y. (2010). The physiological effects of Shinrin- yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environmental health and preventive medicine, 15(1), 18.

30. Morita,E.,Fukuda,S.,Nagano,J.,Hamajima,N.,Yamamoto, , Iwai, Y., … & Shirakawa, T. (2007). Psychological effects of forest environments on healthy adults: Shinrin-yoku (forest-air bathing, walking) as a possible method of stress reduction. Public health, 121(1), 54-63.

31. Bowman, K., & Lewis, J. (2014). Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement. Propriometrics Press.

32. Bratman, G. N., Hamilton, J. , Hahn, K. S., Daily, G. C., & Gross, J. J. (2015). Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 112(28), 8567-8572.

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What’s Good for You is Good for Them – Health and Your Family

The following is Chapter 13 of the new book, Man Alive: Free your mind. Reclaim your health. Discover your true nature. The book is available on Amazon and other major retailers. Click here for more details.

 

“From a small seed a mighty trunk may grow”. – Aeschylus

 

I strode in to greet my regular Friday 6 p.m. client who was warming up on the rowing machine.“How are you?”, I said. He was quite gleeful this evening; he replied that he was fantastic and super excited to take his sons to a notorious pancake restaurant for dinner. My heart sank. Looking to understand why he felt this was alright, I reminded him that he had been working with me for nearly 18 months; exercising, experiencing the benefits of nutrition, cultivating a new lifestyle, and developing healthy habits. He was setting such a great example for his kids at home, and they were proud.

 

He said to me, almost asking for forgiveness, “But Jordy, they’re just kids”.

 

With a smile, I rebutted,“If they’re just kids, why are they eating the ‘food’ that will cause them to end up in the same position you were, whilst you get to eat only the best nutrition available? If all you want is a good sleep, a stable mood, steady energy and the ability to fight off disease, don’t your kids deserve to have that same level of health? Think about what good nutrition means to you, it means the same to them, especially because they’re kids. We can’t forget that they have a human body that is fuelled in just the same way as ours. They just have more potential”.

 

He looked off into the distance for a few moments, quietly weighing up the consequences of a pancake-less evening, then turned back to me and said, “You’re right”. It definitely struck a pain point for me discussing this with my client. My own parents, like most, did their best with the knowledge they had at the time. Evidence for the connection between a child’s nutrition and physical or psychological dysfunction is becoming more and more apparent. With the vastly different knowledge we have now, one can’t help but consider the potential of lives fueled properly, and also the cost to those who miss out.

 

The knowledge we have now can potentially save a child (who will be an adult hopefully 90% of their life) from chronic illnesses, disabilities, mental disorders and even sports injuries. We are so incredibly fortunate to have this evidence now at our fingertips.

 

We mustn’t ignore the evidence, especially because ‘they’re just kids’.

 

One of the most common problems that children suffer is an inability to manage blood glucose levels. The typical child is tortured with a wild see-saw between hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) all throughout the day. Dr Campbell-McBride reports in her book Gut and Psychology Syndrome, “It has been proven that a lot of hyperactivity, inability to concentrate and learn, aggression and other behavioural abnormalities in school children are a direct result of this glucose roller coaster. The hyperglycemic phase produces a feeling of a “high” with hyperactive, manic tendencies… While the hypoglycemic phase makes them feel unwell, often with a headache, bad mood, tantrums, aggression and general fatigue…”.

 

Taking the same approach for us adults, I believe a lot of marital arguments may be prevented by the simple act of having some food. When our blood sugar drops, we become irritable and frustrated quickly, and this can lead to unreasonable and unnecessary (hangry) quarrels. But it’s not just about having some food to stabilise our blood sugar, it’s also about what food we ate, three to five hours earlier. Was it strawberry jam on toast, or a slow-cooked lamb shoulder with vegetables? And yes, the latter option is breakfast meal guaranteed to set you up for a successful day – don’t let the cereal companies convince you otherwise.

 

Another leading cause of disease and dysfunction in children is the inflammatory conditions that arise from out-of-control intestinal bacteria. Overgrowth of specific bacteria such as Candida species and Clostridia species have been linked to autism, A.D.H.D, schizophrenia, and depression.

 

These bacterial complications stem as early in the child’s life as birth. Dr David Perlmutter shows in his book Brain Maker that there is evidence that newborns from cesarean births are deprived of life-enhancing bacteria that arise from the mother’s vagina, and are much more likely to develop digestive issues and neurological dysfunction later in life. It’s also likely that an unhealthy mother gives birth to a sick baby, even if the birth was natural. It’s with this understanding that we realise our health not only impacts ourselves but our closest loved ones too.

 

To alleviate digestive dysfunction, we must heal the intestinal microbiome and also the gut lining. The best-known method is through diet. Foods high in fat and protein and low in carbohydrates (particularly starch) have been shown to improve digestive disorders and also neurological symptoms in children. It’s important to recognise that children can often tolerate more carbohydrates than adults, so this low carbohydrate approach should only be used with children suffering digestive or neurological dysfunction.

 

A much safer blanket approach is to remove all processed foods including bread, pasta, sugar, dairy, soy, and especially anything containing artificial colours and flavours. As early as 1975, a study showed “a rapid improvement in behaviour and learning abilities in ADHD children following dietary management eliminating artificial food colours, flavours, and naturally occurring salicylates”. These foods cause a myriad of problems concerning the human body from neurological and DNA damage to chronic inflammation.

 

Another family that I work with only consumes foods from organic health food stores and local farmer’s markets. On one exceptional occasion, they needed to visit a supermarket chain. Whilst cruising down an aisle, their eight-year-old boy exclaimed, “Mum! This is it!

 

This is what, honey?” his mum replied.

 

Wide-eyed, he responded, “THIS is where my friends get all that stuff from!

 

The two were in the confectionary aisle, and this schoolboy had never seen the items in their packaging on the shelves, let alone in his own pantry. His parents and I are open and honest about their child-rearing experiences. They’ve never had complaints about poor mood or hyperactivity, he’s never been out of control, or struggling to learn in school. If you’re questioning whether theirs is a healthy approach to parenting, I would invite you to challenge your own approach.

 

My friend and fellow man, Kane Johnson is another leading example of taking on the responsibility of fatherhood.

 

 

Returning to the pancake story, the real issue was that the father honestly just didn’t realise the implications of what his children were eating. Even though his middle son had learning disabilities, and he often complained to me that all three were playing up, he didn’t connect the dots on his own. When you’ve been misinformed all your life, you almost can’t blame him.

 

To better regulate your family’s blood sugar levels, intestinal microbiome, and overall health, you must apply the same rules as we discussed earlier. What’s healthy for you is healthy for them. Yes, there can be some variances in genetics and physiology depending on the phase of one’s life. But for the most part, if you remove processed foods and takeaway meals, and instead cook and prepare your food together, not only are you ensuring your child’s success in sport and school (and therefore life), but you are also teaching them vital food-specific skills and knowledge for them to teach the next generation.

 

Chef Pete Evans is spearheading the healthy food in schools crusade in Australia that Jamie Oliver so successfully kick-started throughout the UK. Pete says it best in his blog: “Variety is the spice of life, so I encourage you to continue to be bold and brave with the foods you introduce your kids too. By encouraging adventurous palettes, you’ll ensure they have a lifelong love affair with what they put in their mouths, and their physical and emotional health can benefit tremendously. Ultimately, as a parent, it’s all about trusting that the invaluable food knowledge you give your kids will pay off when they are on their own and that they will be well equipped to easily make the right choices”.

 

Understanding and delighting in food as medicine is indeed an empowering prospect that will serve us all now and for generations to come.

 

Changing your perspective on your family’s nutrition is a cornerstone on which to build your investment in lifelong health and happiness. With your loved ones, I also invite you to explore the other tricks and tips throughout this book and have fun with it. From meditation and breathing, to cold showers and movement, experience these with your children or your loving partner. Learning and exploring together will strengthen your relationships. Watching one another flourish is the ultimate reward.