The experience of lockdowns necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic has seen a general deterioration in mental health, with many people developing mental illness symptoms for the first time. The reasons for it are complex, but one factor has been a decrease in the amount of time spent outside. Although people who are otherwise staying at home have been encouraged to go out once a day for exercise, not everyone has done so. Getting outside is one of the most important things you can do to protect your mental health, and these are some of the reasons why.
Unlike most other animals, humans can’t get enough Vitamin D from diet alone – at least not without taking supplements. Instead, we need to get UV light on our skin to activate a molecule that helps us produce it. This is difficult in the modern world, when we tend to cover most of our skin, and because melanin blocks absorption of UV rays, it’s a particular problem for dark-skinned people living at northern latitudes. The more time you spend outside, the more efficiently your body will produce Vitamin D.
As well as supporting bone health, Vitamin D plays a vital role in nerve signaling. Not having enough can trigger aches and pains and make it harder to think clearly – all factors that contribute to low mood.
As well as Vitamin D, sunlight is essential for triggering the production of serotonin in the brain. Having too little of it directly interferes with mental functioning and can contribute to depression and anxiety. That is why seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a problem for many people in winter. Several medicines can boost serotonin levels, but the simplest way to keep them steady is to get outside more.
A healthy sleep cycle
Under normal circumstances, the sleep cycle is regulated by two things: light and movement. Waking up as it gets light feels good (as long as you’ve had enough sleep), and getting active straightaway helps you to feel mentally and emotionally ready for the day ahead. The increasing prevalence of shift work and other factors rearranging our days means that, unfortunately, fewer and fewer people can live healthily like this. It corresponds with increased rates of mental (as well as physical) illness.
Solutions like lavender oil and CBD vape pens can help if you’re struggling to get to sleep at night or stay asleep – and there are lots of different pen options to choose from these days – but over the long terms, the best thing you can do is try to change your lifestyle so that you can get outside when the day begins and enjoy a natural energy boost.
A healthy gut biome
Another major factor in mental and physical health is the health of your gut, and that is dictated in large part by the microscopic creatures that inhabit it. It used to be thought that all those microbes got into our bodies through the food we ate and the water we drank, but although it’s still essential to have a healthy diet, we now know that many of them are acquired when we breathe. Beneficial gut microbes are particularly abundant in lush natural environments, around trees and shrubs.
When we’re out and about among plants, we breathe in microbes that help keep our guts in good condition reducing the risk of developing anxiety or depression.
Alongside all of this science, there are simpler mechanisms at work. If you’ve been cooped up indoors where it’s stuffy, breathing fresh air can feel wonderfully invigorating. The warmth of the sun on your face or back, even in winter, can be a fantastic sensation. Cooler air stimulates the senses and makes you feel more awake. Being surrounded by greenery has been shown to have a calming effect on emotions, which is why the Japanese practice shinrin yoku, or ‘forest bathing,’ as a form of stress relief.
It’s easier to exercise when outdoors, and regular exercise has significant mental health benefits. It helps to speed up the metabolism and flush the stress hormone cortisol out of the body more quickly. If you do it at roughly the same times of day, it helps with your sleep schedule. Vigorous exercise produces endorphins, which provide an immediate mood lift and can keep you feeling good for some time afterwards. Even if you can only manage gentle exercises like walking or tai chi, it will help keep you in good physical health, which has a good for your mental health.
With all these benefits on offer – and all for free – we can all benefit from getting outside more. Even in situations like those caused by the pandemic, if you can only manage it for short periods, it’s much better than being indoors all the time. In better times, going further afield and enjoying nature will do you a world of good.