I'm not afraid of storms, for I'm learning to sail my ship.

~ Louisa May Alcott
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The Great Outdoors

Spending time outdoors is a cherished tradition for many people, while others avoid the outdoors due to allergies, phobias, a lack of access or just a lack of interest. So many of us are surrounded every day by man-made technology designed to simplify our lives - such as cars, computers, and cell phones - but which can ultimately increase the pace of life, leaving us harried, stressed and sick. Sometimes we lose track of the peace and happiness that can be achieved just by taking a walk in the park or spending a day at the beach.

The psychological and physical affects of looking at or being near nature are more profound than most people realize. Studies have found that nature scenes help students perform better on tests, relieve anxiety in patients recovering from open heart surgery, help patients recover faster after gall bladder surgery, and reduce headaches and sickness in prison inmates. It's also been shown that spending time outside lessens fatigue in breast cancer patients and reduces outbursts from Alzheimer patients. And a recent study at the University of Illinois revealed that playing outdoors, particularly in lush green areas, can reduce symptoms of ADHD in children.

Sunlight is important for the production of serotonin in the brain, as well as for the production of vitamin D. The cells that make up our skin are built much like solar panels in the way they convert sunlight to the vitamin D necessary to maintain calcium levels in our blood and ensure strong bone structure. Vitamin D can also reduce the risk of certain types of cancers, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and osteoporosis. Although many foods contain vitamin D and many others are fortified with vitamin D, it is not as readily and safely absorbed by our bodies as the vitamin D that comes from pure sunlight. Approximately 80 percent of our daily vitamin D requirement is met through direct sunlight. However, 42 percent of African Americans between the ages of 15 and 29 and 36 percent of Caucasians ages 18 to 29 are vitamin D deficient. A vitamin D deficiency increases the risk of developing hyperparathyroidism, type 1 diabetes, hypertension, certain cancers and heart failure. Spending a few minutes outside a few times a week can ensure you get enough vitamin D, and any excess vitamin D is stored by your body for several weeks.

Spending time outdoors can be especially beneficial during pregnancy. The vitamin D you get from the sun helps promote fetal bone growth and reduce maternal bone loss during pregnancy, while the vitamin D found in breast milk is necessary for your child's skeletal and mental development. Walking near a body of water or taking a stroll in the woods can lower your blood pressure and improve your mood, which can help you relax and have a more comfortable pregnancy.

If you can't easily access a natural area or if you simply don't enjoy being in the great outdoors, you can purchase many items to help you bring a bit of nature inside your home. CDs featuring the roar of the ocean or birds singing in the forest can help you relax, while natural loofahs, mud masks, salt scrubs, seaweed wraps, light machines and natural light bulbs imitate some of the relaxing and healing qualities of the outdoors.

People who live in northern climates who receive less sunlight are encouraged to consume foods that are rich in vitamin D, such as salmon, sardines, shrimp, cow's milk and eggs. However, excessive dietary intake of vitamin D can be toxic. Infants 0-12 months should consume a maximum of 25 micrograms (1,000 IU) per day while children and adults (including pregnant and lactating women) should not consume more than 50 micrograms (2,000 IU) per day.

We have always relied on our natural surroundings and always will, even if it's increasingly more remote - with grocery stores instead of hunting and foraging. But however far we venture from nature's resources, we will continue to rely on it to help lift our spirits, calm and relax us, improve our health and promote healing.


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