Well, you’ve arrived at this blog, so you’re open to the suggestion that there may be Mental Health Benefits of Foraging
First off, lets get rid of the Thief of Time that is procrastination.
One way to beat the procrastination thief is to think of it as just one task – Foraging.
You DON’T have to:
- Find the basket/receptacle to put foraged things in
- Look at a map
- Decide where to go
- Check the weather
- Decide what to wear
- Find your socks
- Find your shoes
- Find your knife/other cutting implements you might need
- Find the plant/tree/mushroom ID guide
- Get to where you’re going
- Look at a leaf/berry/mushroom
- Check what it is in a book/app
- Double check that you have identified it correctly
- Triple check that you have definitely identified it correctly
- Find out if its something you can eat/feel like eating
- Pick a leaf or two/decide not to pick them
- decide which way to go next
- walk that way
- Find another leaf/berry/mushroom
- ……….. ad infinitum
NO! None of that –
Well,, actually,, all of that, probably.
But don’t tell the Time Thief that. All it needs to know is
The plan is:
OK. So now to convince you that foraging is good for the mind, body and soul first
- looking at why we need to do something that is good for those things,
- considering some scientific theories currently doing the rounds,
- concluding that its just in our nature
The Science Bit
For most of our evolution as a species, over many thousands of years, human beings have interacted closely with the natural environment – we are part of nature after all. Over the last few hundred years, with the changes brought by the industrial revolution and advances in technology, we have become more and more isolated from and out of touch with nature.
We rely on machines to do many of the things we would have had to do manually in the past and which would have required much more physical exertion than we expend in our current world. As a result, people are more sedentary in their lifestyles and there is a global epidemic of obesity, which, in itself, is closely linked to depression.
Other mental health problems, which many people suffer with today, are a result of our bodies producing chemicals such as adrenaline which were imperative to surviving life-threatening situations in the natural “wild” environment. Nowadays we still produce these chemicals but in non-life-threatening situations. Our hormonal glands have not had time to evolve at pace with the modern world so we produce adrenaline, and its sibling hormones, in response to situations where we don’t actually need to fight or flee.
If only we had evolved to produce a hormone that stimulated the “Noooo! This is awful. But …..meh!” response or the “Aaargh! This is terrible! I am going to find a creative and mutually beneficial solution” response. Our intellectual brains are able to respond that way but in stressful situations we are often not able to stop the production of adrenaline. The problem then is that we don’t exert the energy required to metabolise those chemicals and flush them out of our system by, say, running away from a tiger; so the chemicals stay in our body.
This results in a chemical imbalance which can lead to mental imbalances which manifest as depression, anxiety and other mental and physical health problems.
Connecting with the natural environment cannot undo the changes in our lifestyle but it can help improve our physical and mental health and overall well being. There are many theories on why the natural environment has such a beneficial effect on our well being.
One theory is the effect of Negative Atmospheric Ions (NAIs).
Negative Atmospheric Ions (NAIs) – more science
NAIs are generated by the Lenard effect. The Lenard effect was first studied by Philipp Lenard who is more famous for receiving the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1905 for his research on cathode rays.
NAIs are molecules floating in the air that have been charged with electricity and as a result have chemical reactions with your bodily tissues. They exist in nature in:
- ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun
- discharges of electricity in the air after a thunderclap or lightning strike
- wherever water collides with itself like a waterfall or the ocean shore
- vegetation, as part of the normal growth process for many plants.
Research has shown that NAIs significantly improve
- alertness and circadian rhythm (your sleep/wake cycle)
- a range of medical conditions from allergies to migraine
- cognitive performance in tests on addition
- visual and verbal memory
- ideational fluency (the ability to rapidly produce a series of ideas, words, or phrases related to a specific condition or object.
and that exposure to NAIs:
- reduces symptoms of depression for some people
- promotes antimicrobial activity
- reduces stress
- boosts immune system function
- increases metabolism of carbs and fats
- kills or inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria, viruses, and mold species
Other research into the effects of NAIs, using air ionisers for air purification, concluded that this idea was pseudoscience but evidence of the beneficial effects of naturally produced, negative ions on cognition and mood still exists.
Exposure to Negative Atmospheric Ions may be part of the reason people feel refreshed and relaxed after spending time in a natural environment. People working in office environments are exposed to positive ions released by electronic equipment such as computers and photocopy machines. In these circumstances the negative impact of the office environment can be off set by people taking a walk in more natural environments during their lunch break, or the provision of living plants or water features, where moving water produces NAIs, within the office environment.
Another theory on the benefits of spending time in nature is encompassed in the practice of Shinrinyoku (Forest Bathing).
Shinrinyoku – kind of sciencey
Shinrinyoku is practised by walking in a mindful way through a forest or woodland; the idea is to work with the breath to make a connection with the natural environment. Research has highlighted decreases in depression and feelings of hostility amongst those who practice Shinrinyoku and benefits to people suffering from some medical conditions such as hypertension and type 2 diabetes. However, it has been shown that simply spending time in the forest can also deliver therapeutic benefits.
In Japan Forest Bathing is already funded by the health authority and is recognised as a stress management method.
The well being benefits of Forest Bathing have been linked to trees giving off organic compounds that support NK (natural killer) cells which are part of the human immune system’s way of fighting cancer. Trees also emit various essential oils (phytoncides) to protect themselves from germs and insects. It is suggested that inhalation of phytoncides can also improve the function of our immune system.
This points to a link between the health of the body and the health of the mind; an idea also supported by research into the diversity of micro-organisms in the gut microbiome.
Wild Foods and Diversity in the Human Microbiome
(a bit more science)
Humans have evolved for millions of years eating wild food. It is only in the past one or two hundred years that we have become dependant on mass produced, highly processed food. We are particularly reliant on a few strains of wheat, from which we derive our main source of carbohydrates – bread and pasta.
It has been scientifically proven that the greater the variety of plant chemicals (vitamins, minerals and nutrients) we ingest, the greater the diversity of micro-organisms in our gut microbiome. An increase in this diversity has been shown to have a significant positive impact on our health, in terms of immunity, blood circulation, heart health, muscle, nerve and brain connectivity. This in turn has a positive impact on our mental health.
Reliance on a few different strains of wheat and an over-consumption of bread and pasta could be the reason for a rise in gluten intolerance, which many people are suffering from today; the micro-organisms that thrive on those foods become dominant and create an unhealthy imbalance.
We also rely on vegetables from supermarkets, that are grown in large fields where the natural processes that create a fertile soil do not take place. A natural, healthy soil is created when plants die and are broken down into their constituent chemicals by fungi, worms, soil mites and bacteria. This natural decomposition returns organic chemicals to the soil, where they become available for other plants to absorb and build into their structure.
Plants growing naturally, in the right place at the right time are able to survive pests and diseases and compete with other species because of the organic chemicals they have built into their structure, which they absorbed from the soil. Wild plants have to struggle to survive. The harder the struggle the more chemicals they need to build into their structure – these plant chemicals are what we call vitamins, minerals and nutrients.
Many of the vegetables we buy from supermarkets are grown in soil containing hardly any organic matter. Those plants are able to survive because of the herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers they are given. They do not need to take natural elements from the soil and, if they did, they would not survive because there is no organic matter available.
The result of these two different growth systems is that wild plants naturally have a much greater diversity of vitamins, minerals and nutrients than plants grown in the farmers’ field. Therefore, eating wild plants, rather than those dependent on pesticides, herbicides and fertiliser, will enhance the diversity of micro-organisms in our gut microbiome, resulting in a significant improvement in our physical and mental well being.
Mindfulness and Green Spaces
Mindfulness is widely recognised as a positive way of addressing many mental health problems and the proximity of green spaces is also known to have a positive impact on people’s mental health. Mindfulness and enjoyment of the natural world can be combined in foraging practices, as discussed below.
How foraging nurtures connection between participants and the natural environment
Foraging gives people a reason to get out into the natural environment. It provides a mission and a focus which is more motivational than just going for a walk. When you are looking for something specific you invariably find other things that you weren’t actively looking for, so a foraging expedition becomes a learning experience. As you become more knowledgeable you feel more connected to and more appreciative of nature. Attending foraging events and courses is an opportunity to meet like-minded people, to learn from them and the forage leader and to share your own knowledge. This deepens your knowledge of and connection with the natural environment.
Foraging events often include cooking the produce that has been harvested over a fire. Many people enjoy this as it brings memories of childhood and a sense of freedom. While the sounds, sights, smells and feel of the natural environment play a role in reducing stress by stimulating the senses, foraging adds another dimension by stimulating the sense of taste.
It is easy to forage mindfully. While focusing on the ground or trees, in search of edible foods, your attention is open to the sounds, smells and feel of the environment. Your mind can wander as you notice the song of a bird, the smell of the soil, or how the temperature changes between sunshine and shade.
The experience of noticing something and then letting it go is part of the mindful process and you can do this with thoughts about your life which enter your mind while you are foraging too. For example, you may find yourself ruminating about getting a dent in your car mended but then you notice what may be a mushroom in the vegetation at the base of a tree; your attention moves away from the clutter of worries and concerns of everyday life as you focus your attention on investigating the mushroom. Before you know it you are Forest Bathing as thoughts come and go and you absorb the environment with your senses.
As you become more proficient and return from your foraging trips with a greater abundance of flavours, colours, smells and nutrients, you gain a greater appreciation for your food and feel a sense of self-sufficiency and achievement. A greater sense of self-worth is a natural treatment for depression and anxiety.
Whatever the science behind it is, foraging for wild food provides many significant physical and mental health benefits; it can only improve our well being and reestablish our connection with nature.