Episode 174: Health Benefits of Nature with Dr. Austin Perlmutter

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Nature Medicine

Have you ever been under a huge amount of stress and then stepped outside for a minute, and almost immediately felt your heart rate slow down, your breath deepen, and your mind start to calm? If you answered yes, you’re not alone. There is a growing body of research into nature’s impact on the human body. One of the problems of modern life is that it’s possible to spend our entire day and night indoors, with no exposure to nature at all. What are the benefits of nature? Can regular time in nature improve our autoimmune health? If we live in the city, can we still access those benefits? What about people who are homebound? We’ll be discussing all possibilities in today’s episode. My guest is Dr. Austin Perlmutter, an internal medicine physician with a passion for holistic health. He’s also the co-author of the bestselling book, Brain Wash: Detox your mind for clearer thinking, deeper relationships, and lasting happiness.

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Show Notes

  • Intro (0:00)
  • Thank You To Our Podcast Sponsor – Functional Nutrition Alliance (2:31)
    • Full Body Systems is an internationally acclaimed, 10-month online functional nutrition immersion training program.
    • It’s designed by world-renowned educator, Andrea Nakayama. Many of you know her as one of my most popular podcast guests. Her unique way of working with patients often leads to results where other practitioners hit dead ends. This program teaches you to do the same.
    • If you’re already trained as a health coach, nutritionist, or medical practitioner and want to more effectively help your clients break through healing plateaus, this class is for you!
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    • You’ll gain detailed knowledge of all the systems in the body, how they interact, how problems develop, and how to personalize diet and lifestyle recommendations for each unique client.
    • Enrollment is currently open. To learn more, visit FxNutrition.com/Eileen.
  • Meet Dr. Austin Perlmutter (3:56) 
    • Dr. Austin Perlmutter is an internal medicine physician with a passion for holistic health. His focus is the intersection of neuroscience and psychology. How does the biology of our brain impact decision making and mental health? Decision making isn’t just about personality, and mental illness isn’t just psychological. Both are impacted by lifestyle (diet, sleep, stress, nature exposure, etc.)
    • His book, Brain Wash, discusses this in detail. He co-wrote the book with his father, Dr. David Perlmutter, one of the leading voices in the paleo community.
  • Dr. Austin’s Personal Experience with Nature Therapy (8:31)
    • He was born in Florida but did his medical residency in Portland, OR. It was incredibly stressful. He was overworked, sleep deprived, and immersed in a hospital environment where patients sometimes died. It took both a physical and emotional toll. He would often end his workday vegging out in front of the TV, because he didn’t have the energy to do anything else.
    • It also rains half the year in Portland, which can cause depression by itself. Accustomed to Florida sunshine, it didn’t occur to Austin to go out in the rain, so he spent his days indoors. One day, he decided to change that. He went out in the rain to a beautiful wooded area and simply wandered around, soaking up nature. It felt so good, he continued doing that as part of his stress relief and self-care, and his mental health dramatically improved. That inspired him to delve into the science about the health benefits of nature.
  • Nature & Modern Life (13:41)
    • We evolved to spend all day outside, but in modern life, the average American spends 87% of the day in a building and 6% in a vehicle, spending 93% of their day inside.
  • Health Benefits of Nature (15:00)
    • Reduces inflammation, including TNFa and IL-6 (important pathways in autoimmune activity)
    • Reduces stress and improves our ability to cope with stress
    • Lowers blood pressure and heart rate
    • Improves mood (boosting happiness and lowering anxiety & depression)
    • Improves recovery from illness
    • Lowers risk of dying early
    • Improves sleep
    • Boosts energy
    • Improves focus and creative problem-solving
    • Encourages presence and mindfulness
    • Experiencing awe in nature reduces feelings of entitlement and increases empathy and generosity
    • Provides access to sunshine and vitamin D
    • For research details, check out the endnotes of Dr. Austin’s book. (Chapter 6 focuses on nature.)
  • Forest Bathing (17:45)
    • A lot of the early research into the health benefits of nature came from Japan, based on their tradition of Shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing”).
    • This is what Dr. Austin did during his medical residency when he experienced the medicinal benefits of nature for himself. He hadn’t heard of the research at that point; he simply discovered it on his own.
  • Long vs. Short Nature Exposure (20:09)
    • While there is a dose-response effect which shows greater benefit for longer nature exposures, there’s also research showing that short times in nature are beneficial. In fact, even photos of nature show benefit, so don’t let perfectionism keep you from making nature part of your daily life.
    • Dr. Austin recommends a blend: bring some nature into your home, spend a few minutes outside each day in any way that’s accessible, and then try for 20 minutes of immersion in a beautiful natural setting once/week.
    • Resource: How to Dose Vitamin N.
  • Easy Ways to Access Nature (24:03)
    • Ask yourself which of your daily activities can’t be done outside. Here’s a list of things we usually do inside that can often be done outside: phone calls, meetings, meditation, meals, exercise, dates with friends, etc.
    • Get to know your local natural places: parks, trails, greenspaces, school fields after hours. Visit those once or twice a week.
    • When driving to errands or appointments, park a little ways away, so you can walk a few minutes to and from your destination.
    • Take short, mindful breaks in your backyard, noticing the details of the nature that’s right there. Look closely at a plant and notice everything about it. Close your eyes and listen to the birds. Open your eyes and watch the clouds.
    • One of Eileen’s favorite studies compared cognitive behavioral therapy done outside in a forest setting vs. inside in a hospital setting. Outside sessions reduced depression by 61% compared to a 21% reduction when the same sessions were done inside.
    • When nature is combined with other activities that offer their own benefits, those benefits are compounded.
  • Thank You To Our Podcast Sponsor – Luminance Skincare (28:55)
    • This week, I’m highlighting the Luminance Trio Skincare Set – their bestselling 3-step skincare line. It includes a delicate cleanser, rosewater toner & your choice of deep hydration or light hydration moisturizer. It’s available in 4-oz. bottles or 1-oz. travel-size. You can also add an exfoliating mask or their popular acne serum. Whatever your skincare needs, Luminance has you covered!
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  • Bringing Nature Into Our Homes (30:11)
    • Hospital research shows ways we can get the health benefits of nature indoors as well. Patients with windows looking at trees have better health outcomes than those without. In rooms without windows, the presence of plants or even photos of plants can lower stress, anxiety, fatigue, and even pain.
    • Buying plants for your home can be a simple way to have more nature in your life. If you’re new to plants, philodendrons are very hardy.
    • Display some favorite nature photos. When Eileen was a massage therapist, she had a very small treatment room that seemed crowded until she put a nature poster on the wall. Suddenly, it felt like the room had a window, and clients noticed the difference.
    • The sounds of nature can also relieve anxiety and pain. Music streaming services usually have a nature channel, and Naturespace is a free app.
    • Certain plant oils have stress-reducing benefits as well. One of the most well-researched is the oil from the wood of a cedar tree. This may be one of the reasons forest bathing is so beneficial. Since we can’t plant trees in our homes, cedarwood essential oil is an indoor option.
    • Lastly, consider a birdfeeder outside the window. Eileen also used to work for hospice and when patients were bedridden, this was one way to bring some comfort and joy into a difficult time.
    • For research details, see the endnotes of Dr. Austin’s book. (Chapter 6 focuses on nature.)
  • Attention Restoration Theory (38:16)
    • In modern life, our attention is pulled in multiple directions, especially with the use of technology. Nature can restore our ability to focus. So, taking nature breaks even during a busy day can actually improve your productivity.
  • Earthing (39:26)
    • This is the practice of putting your body in direct contact with the earth’s surface as a grounding exercise. There are also earthing mats sold that are supposed to provide this grounding energy in the house, improving ion flow in the body.
    • Dr. Austin isn’t an expert on the science of earthing, but he isn’t convinced by the research he’s seen so far. However, he is a believer in immersing ourselves in the nature experience, and one way to do that is to increase our connection to the earth. Walking in shoes feels very different than walking barefoot, for example. There is also research showing that the deeper the nature immersion, the more alpha waves are present in the brain, and those are the ones associated with relaxation. Earthing may be one way to get this benefit.
  • Book: Brain Wash (42:22)
    • “Brain wash” traditionally has a negative connotation, and indeed in the modern world, many people have been brainwashed into making poor health decisions.
    • With this book, however, they redefine “brain wash” to mean something positive that we can do for ourselves. Research shows that our bodies have the ability to physiologically “wash” our brains, cleaning up their metabolic waste. We can also rewire our neural pathways in new directions, “washing out” unhealthy thought patterns and replacing those with health-supporting patterns instead.
    • The book covers 8 lifestyle areas where we can “wash our brains” in a healthy way: nature exposure, meditation & mindfulness, sleep, relationships, mindful use of technology, empathy and gratitude, exercise, and an anti-inflammatory diet.
    • Dr. Austin doesn’t recommend trying to change everything at once. Small steps add up and are more likely to become long-term habits. Health is a marathon, not a sprint. You can start with any area, but the two he recommends are nature exposure and sleep. Improving sleep is the quickest way to see improvement in brain function, and when we sleep well, it becomes easier to make healthy choices in the other areas. Nature therapy is his second recommendation because it’s often something people haven’t tried that can have an immediate benefit, and it’s enjoyable as well. But whatever area you choose, when you start making healthy choices in one of these 8 lifestyle areas, it improves your ability to make healthy choices in the others. It’s a positive domino effect.
  • Pandemic Note (52:29)
    • Nature exposure reduces stress and improves immune health. These are two areas on the forefront of our minds right now. And in a world where there’s currently a lot of divisiveness and disagreement, nature isn’t controversial. It’s something that can benefit us all, and when we spend time in nature, we get a respite from our politically charged world.
  • Outro (53:31)

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