Dr. Miina Öhman is a physician scientist who has studied obesity, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes for the past two decades. She is an advocate of preventive medicine, i.e. healthy lifestyle and holistic wellbeing, which contribute remarkably to human health span. Dr. Öhman loves nature and outdoors, and believes in the healing power of natural environments for people who suffer from the stressors of hectic urban lifestyle.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
KrAsia (Kr): What drew you into doing research around health benefits of nature immersion?
Miina Öhman (MÖ): I lived the earlier half of my life in Finland, which is the most forested country in Europe, has a very low population density and no big metropoles. I then lived in the US for ten years and moved to Singapore about nine years ago. The sprawling urban landscape here really provided a stark contrast to the environment I grew up in. After noticing how some urban stressors affected myself here, I was interested to understand better the differences in lifestyle as well as stress levels, because urban populations are known to be chronically stressed, but many of us don’t necessarily know where the stress it’s coming from. The disconnection from nature certainly plays a role.I started reading about Japanese forest therapy (shinrin yoku), and I remember thinking what is so special about the Japanese people walking in a forest? In Finland, everybody walks in the forest! It piqued my interest, and I decided to delve into the different ways nature can help people to cope with stress, in particular those living an urban lifestyle.
Kr: What are some of the biggest stress factors in the urban environment?
MÖ: First of all, human congestion. In Singapore, we are in large crowds all the time, given the high population density of this country. On a subway ride during peak hours, we get squeezed into the train and barely have any personal space, then we try to create some “privacy” from the surrounding strangers by looking at our phones, as if that could isolate us from the inconvenient environment. It is psychologically stressful because a bunch of strangers are forced together and the mind automatically perceives this a potential threat. During human history, we have lived in smaller tribes where everyone knew each other, but as the recent urbanization has changed this all, we are now forced to encounter strangers all the time. Often people just don’t realize that life has evolved to become more stressful due to this change.
Secondly, noise pollution. Back in Finland, I could go to the forest and spend the entire day alone. Nobody else would be there. I can be truly immersed in nature. In Singapore, even though we have greenery and more parks than in most other big cities, it comes with a constant noise. Construction work going on, cars in the distance, airplanes above etc. The constant urban noise definitely contributes to increased stress levels and thus, can predispose us to high blood pressure.
Thirdly, light pollution in the city, which is always awake, and obviously our avid use of smartphones and screens. These sources of unnatural light can cause a lot of stress to our body systems. People tend to be glued to their phones and screens nowadays, which takes time away from outdoor activities and makes us strain our eyes by staring at near distance. Myopia ensues. Further, there is the whole circadian rhythm that is disrupted because of all the digital light we’re getting in the evening. During the day, we need natural light and at night, we need to sleep instead of use our phones. Using the screens during evening hours disrupts our natural hormonal cycle of melatonin, which is an important hormone for sleep. Essentially, we now face problems like sleep deprivation, insomnia, and poor hormonal health. Even glucose metabolism is impaired due to sleep deprivation and that can increase the risk of diabetes. Just from the over utilization of phones, we subject our bodies to stress in an unconscious manner.
Kr: How does our body respond to just being in nature and greenery?
MÖ: In any urban environment, we constantly need to use our direct attention to things and people around us, such as where we are walking and whether cars are approaching. Living the city life also means that everything is designed to capture our attention, from blinking lights to advertisements to loud noises. Instead, in a natural environment, we only give involuntary attention to the things around us. We also don’t have distractions in the background, all the time.
This can offer a true sense of calm and ease, and especially the feeling of relaxation. Another important point is that in modern life, we deal with too much pressure and judgment. We all tend to have a role to play, an imaginary mask to wear, we need to dress, look and behave in a certain way, and so on. When in nature, nothing such applies. Nature always welcomes us and accepts us as we are. Nature is not judging, nor pressuring us to conform in any way, so that can significantly increase our mood and self-esteem almost instantly.Research also shows that while being in nature, the individual’s heart rate variability can be increased.
This means that instead of sympathetic nervous system, which is activated in stress response, the parasympathetic nervous system, which is associated with relaxation and recovery, can be more active. In the long term, this switch will bring beneficial effects on the body and mental well-being. Spending time in nature can even improve your immune system, especially with natural killer cells that help to combat cancer, for example.
Kr: How do you encourage your family to go outdoors?
MÖ: I encourage my kids to engage in different kinds of outdoor sports. Some of our favorites include cycling and swimming, especially in Singapore’s climate. In other countries we would always go somewhere where we can do hiking or skiing. Even for people who have not typically been active, it is always a good idea to start some small physical activity, for example walking, and rather than in urban environment, do it close to natural or green areas. Start with something that is achievable and accessible for you.
Apart from getting into nature, I think it’s great if we could bring nature closer to us, too. I love to buy plants and take care of them in the house. After all, we live in symbiosis with the plants, as they absorb carbon dioxide that we exhale and release oxygen that we need to survive.
Lastly, I do talk to my kids about why the natural environment and nature connection is beneficial, and why spending time with a screen is not healthy. By imparting such knowledge to them, I hope they can really implement it into their lives.