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Rx: Nature

Healing Gardens Defeat Nature-Deficit Disorder

Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

Each morning, before I settle down to write at my computer, I take a few minutes to stroll through my garden where I marvel at Mother Nature's magnificence. I inhale the hyacinths' heady perfume and savor the scent of spring's softening earth beneath my feet. I listen for returning songbirds, and anticipate the crisp flesh of newly sprouted snow peas and radishes. Time immersed in nature clears the morning cobwebs and de-clutters my thoughts. 

Now imagine taking your child to the pediatrician and leaving with a prescription for similar doses of "green time." Sound far-fetched? Not if you know Frances Kuo.

Kuo directs the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois, where she and her fellow researchers study the “connection between greenery and human health.” One of her latest discoveries will interest any parent or teacher who cares for children with attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder.

Kuo and colleague, Andrea Faber Taylor, recently found that for children with ADHD, a simple 20 minute walk in a park improved their ability to concentrate. The improvements in behavior were comparable to those seen with standard drug treatment. (1)

Let me repeat: time spent in nature resulted in benefits comparable to drug therapy.

The researchers concluded that "doses of nature" might serve as a safe, inexpensive, widely accessible new tool for managing ADHD symptoms. Plus, other than a scraped knee or a few bug bites, nature therapy comes with few side effects.

ADHD is characterized by impulsive behavior, hyperactivity, and the inability to pay attention to tasks. Estimates vary, but about 8 percent of U.S. school-aged children between 5 to 17 years of age may meet diagnostic criteria, with a higher incidence among boys, and those children living in poverty. (2)

Unfortunately, children from lower income homes tend to spend more time with television and to have less access to safe outdoor play spaces and fresh, wholesome foods. The risk also appears greater among children exposed to environmental toxins, such as lead, mercury, pesticides, and tobacco smoke.

Diet has long been the subject of ADHD treatment. For example, in the early 1970s, physician Benjamin Feingold reported that 30 to 50 percent of his hyperactive patients benefited from a diet free of artificial food colorings and additives.

The processed food industry criticized the diet approach, but accumulating evidence supports the connection. Synthetic food dyes and other additives, particularly the preservative sodium benzoate, appear to increase hyperactive behavior. (3,4)

Treating a child with ADHD requires a team approach. Talk to your child’s doctor before making any changes in medication, and request a referral to a registered dietitian to discuss contributing factors such as nutrient deficiencies and food allergies. Nutrition research is in its infancy, and each child is unique, but promising dietary approaches to improve symptoms also include probiotics and omega-3 fatty acids.

Regardless of whether your child has been diagnosed with ADHD, one thing's for sure: in today’s media-saturated environments, children (and adults) need less screen time, and more “green time.”

Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” says: “Unlike television, nature does not steal time, it amplifies it.” He believes that nature inspires creativity in a child through the full use of their senses. (5)

Peter Raven, president of the Missouri Botanical Garden believes in connecting children to nature through gardening. “By engaging youth in their natural world, they will want to protect it for future generations."

So grab your shovel, a few packs of seeds, your watering can, and your children. Mother Nature is calling us to join her in the garden.

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