Food & Agriculture Health

2023 January Health Update

Pollen from a variety of common plants: sunflower (Helianthus annuus, small spiky sphericals, colorized pink), morning glory (Ipomoea purpurea, big sphericals with hexagonal cavities, colorized mint green), hollyhock (Sildalcea malviflora, big spiky sphericals, colorized yellow), lily (Lilium auratum, bean shaped, colorized dark green), primrose (Oenothera fruticosa, tripod shaped, colorized red) and castor bean (Ricinus communis, small smooth sphericals, colorized light green). The image is magnified some x500, so the bean shaped grain in the bottom left corner is about 50 μm long. Image in the public domain courtesy of Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility, Dartmouth College.

Lowest pollen counts occur between 4:00 a.m. and noon

If you are allergic to pollen, you’ve probably wondered if certain times of day are better than others for going outside during pollen season. A new study presented at the 2022 American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) Annual Scientific Meeting in Louisville, KY suggests that early morning hours are better than later in the afternoon for dodging pollen. “People who have pollen allergies can generally benefit from knowing at what times of day pollen counts are highest,” says allergist Stanley Fineman, MD, ACAAI member and lead author of the study. “If you are someone who enjoys outdoor activities, you need to be aware of when pollen counts are lowest, and what times are best for you to be outside. Weather apps and websites are a good way to monitor pollen levels in your area.”

CU Boulder Professor Jill Litt checks on a plant at a community garden in Denver, Colorado. Credit: Glenn Asakawa/CU Boulder.

Study shows gardening may help reduce cancer risk, boost mental health

Get more exercise. Eat right. Make new friends. As we compile our lists of resolutions aimed at improving physical and mental health in 2023, new CU Boulder research suggests one addition could have a powerful impact: Gardening. The first-ever, randomized, controlled trial of community gardening found that those who started gardening ate more fiber and got more physical activity—two known ways to reduce risk of cancer and chronic diseases. They also saw their levels of stress and anxiety significantly decrease. The findings were published in The Lancet Planetary Health. “These findings provide concrete evidence that community gardening could play an important role in preventing cancer, chronic diseases and mental health disorders,” said senior author Jill Litt, a professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at CU Boulder.

Honey bee pollinating a melon blossom. Photo: Dan Wyns. From Michigan State University Extension service.

How Does a Shortage of Pollinators Impact Food Supply & Human Health?

A recent study in Environmental Health Perspectives sought to answer this question. Animal pollination supports the production of healthy fruits and vegetables that provide key nutrients and protect against noncommunicable disease. The shortage of insect and animal (e.g., bats, birds) pollinators means that some crops don’t pollinated and thus don’t produce food. The researchers aimed to model the impacts on current global human health from insufficient pollination via diet. Segmenting data by climate grow zone, they estimated current yield gaps for animal-pollinated foods and estimated the proportion of the gap attributable to insufficient pollinators based on existing research. They then simulated closing the “pollinator yield gaps” by eliminating the portion of total yield gaps attributable to insufficient pollination. Next, they used an agriculture–economic model to estimate the impacts of closing the pollinator yield gap on food production, interregional trade, and consumption. Finally, they used a comparative risk assessment to estimate the related changes in dietary risks and mortality by country and globally. They also estimated the lost economic value of crop production for three diverse case-study countries: Honduras, Nepal, and Nigeria. Globally, they calculated that 3%–5% of fruit, vegetable, and nut production is lost due to inadequate pollination, leading to over 400,000 excess deaths annually from lost healthy food consumption and associated diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers. The impacts were unevenly distributed. Lower-income countries lost more food, whereas impacts on food consumption and mortality attributable to insufficient pollination were greater in middle- and high-income countries with higher rates of noncommunicable disease. In the three case-study countries, they calculated the economic value of crop production to be 12%–31% lower than if pollinators were abundant. (See also: Loss of pollinators causing more than 400,000 early deaths a year: study)

Image in public domain. Photo by Dave Clubb on Unsplash.

Green environments in residential areas may impact the composition of sugar molecules in breastmilk

Living in a greener environment has an impact on the composition of mother’s breastmilk, which in turn may affect the infant’s health. The paper is published in the journal Scientific Reports. The research, conducted at the Departments of Biology and Public Health at University of Turku, examined the association between the residential green environment and the individual oligosaccharide profile in the mother’s breastmilk. Oligosaccharides are sugar molecules that are the most common component in breastmilk after lactose and fat. So far, approximately 200 oligosaccharides have been discovered and they form a very versatile group of different kinds of complex structures. The oligosaccharides in breastmilk can protect the infant from harmful microbes and reduce the risk of developing allergies and diseases. The oligosaccharides are also closely connected to the immune system and gut microbiota which also have an impact the infant’s health. “This could indicate that increased everyday contacts with nature could be beneficial for breastfeeding mothers and their children […]. The results imply that breastfeeding could have a mediating role between residential green environments and health in infancy,” says Lahdenperä. She continues, “The results highlight the importance of understanding the biological pathways that can impact health and lead to the development of different diseases starting from infancy.”

Children Citizen Science Health

2023 January: Children

Colourful signage and picket fence make for a bright welcome to the Children’s Garden. Photo by Lorne Abugov. Reproduced from The MainStreeter community newspaper.

Ottawa’s First Dedicated Children’s Garden Is An Oasis of Green and Growth

One of the delights of living in Old Ottawa East is its proximity to green spaces and natural beauty. Since 2008, Robert Legget Park has been transformed into Ottawa’s first dedicated Children’s Garden. A veritable oasis of green and growth, the Garden represents a true community effort, with contributions from many local groups. As is appropriate for a Children’s Garden, students at Lady Evelyn Alternative School undertook research and design work, which resulted in the garden plan. As well, each fence picket was painted by a student at the school. Improvements were made in 2017 and, more recently, a garden manager was hired. This is also a teaching garden. Jennifer San from Let’s Talk Science at uOttawa and CarletonU and Hannah Keefe from Frontier College Ottawa were on hand on a particularly lovely day in early July to offer their expertise. A group of enthusiastic children gathered around the seating circle and were spellbound while Keefe read The Giving Tree by The Giving Tree . She and San then encouraged the children to think about the story and what they can do to appreciate and respect nature. The children then dashed around the Garden to find a leaf that interested them. Back at the table, they were given a chunk of clay to roll out and press their leaves into to create an impression. The children summed up the activity with enthusiasm: “excellent, fun, great, helpful knowledge.”

School garden-based interventions can improve blood sugar, reduce bad cholesterol in children

School garden-based interventions can improve metabolic parameters such as blood sugar and cholesterol in children, according to a new study from UTHealth Houston. A cluster randomized controlled trial conducted by researchers with UTHealth Houston School of Public Health and The University of Texas at Austin found that Texas Sprouts—a gardening, nutrition, and cooking intervention implemented in elementary schools in Austin—improved glucose control and reduced bad cholesterol in high-risk minority youth. The results were published in JAMA Network Open.

A new project by the Royal Horticultural Society aims to find out the best species of hedge to plant in urban areas. Photograph: RHS Images/PA

Scientist enlists pupils to see how hedges can make greener schools

Ever thought there should be more hedges in playgrounds? A group of urban schoolchildren are going to be taking part in a scientific study to see what impact a hedge can have. A project by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) aims to find out the best species of hedge to plant in urban areas, so it can be rolled out across state schools that suffer from air pollution and a lack of green space. Dr Tijana Blanusa, the RHS principal scientist, decided to carry out her research in schools after realising her two children had very little access to nature at their urban state primary. The children will be involved in learning more about the role of plants in reducing flood risks, improving air quality and summertime cooling – either by using a new online tool made by the RHS or through hands-on science sessions in school, led by the science team. However, there will be a control group of children without access to the hedge, to see the difference having green space makes.

Health Trees & Forests

Giant Steps

Photo by R. Last.

Giant steps: why walking in nature is good for mind, body and soul: Studies of walking’s benefits date back to the 1950s, with the last decade of research preoccupied with the rise of “10,000 steps a day” challenges and the use of pedometers and activity trackers. What they tell us is that while all these tools urge us towards lofty step counts, there isn’t exactly a magic number to achieve. The figure 10,000 was dreamed up as part of a 1960s pedometer marketing campaign in Japan, and a recent study indicates that half that amount can be beneficial, with a plateau in benefits after about 7,500 steps. The NHS advises that just 10 minutes of brisk walking daily makes a difference. For an activity many of us do daily without thinking, this seems remarkable, but it’s estimated that when walking over half our body’s muscle mass is engaged. And the benefits of even a moderate pace – around three miles an hour – range from improved cardiovascular health, like lower blood pressure, to better glucose metabolism, musculoskeletal health, and mental wellbeing. However, researchers distinguish between the passive steps we take going about our lives doing things like food shopping and errands (termed “secondary purpose walking”) and the act of actually going for a walk, which was the thing I really missed. On a walk, when we’ve laced our boots a bit more intentionally, the benefits reach beyond a bit of exercise, and where we choose to walk can make a big difference. There is a growing swathe of research to back up the idea that being in nature improves not simply mental but physical health. Most studies highlight a 1984 study by Roger Ulrich, a professor of healthcare architecture who examined whether hospital patients with a view of nature recovered faster, and better, than those who didn’t. But as the contemporary American philosopher, Arnold Berleant, argues, it is when we’re actually moving through a landscape, rather than treating it simply as scenery, that we most fully connect with a place and ignite all our senses. Berleant uses the term “aesthetic engagement”, but it needn’t be quite so lofty: A walk along the river might count, or perhaps time spent practising shinrin-yoku (forest bathing), really attending to the details of the trees, the leaves, the smells and the sounds. Over the past 20 years, research into the benefits of this kind of outdoor exercise has boomed: looking at the impact of, say, free gyms in parks or the improvement to learning outcomes for students walking in the woods. In one of the earliest studies, researchers in 2005 found that while walking or jogging improved blood pressure and mental health, viewing pleasant rural and urban scenes while doing so had a better impact on wider health and self-esteem than exercising on its own.

Health Women in Science

November Women in Science

Congratulations to Dr. Melissa Lem, winner of the Canadian Museum of Nature’s 2022 Nature Inspiration Award in the Adult category. Vancouver family physician Dr. Lem is an internationally recognized expert in the health benefits of nature, and President-Elect of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. Working under the auspices of the BC Parks Foundation, Lem led the launch of Canada’s national nature prescription program, PaRx. This program—the first in Canada, and only the second in the world—engages health-care providers to prescribe nature to their patients, offering both resources and information to the providers. Thanks to various partnerships with groups across Canada, the program also offers a range of options to increase accessibility to natural spaces, such as free park passes from Parks Canada, to enable Canadians to access nature where they live.

Biodiversity Health

Why Forests Make Us Happy

‘I’m glowing’: scientists are unlocking secrets of why forests make us happy: How happy do you feel right now? The question is asked by an app on my phone, and I drag the slider to the space between “not much” and “somewhat”.

I’m about to start a walk in the woods that is part of a nationwide research project to investigate how better to design the forests of the future. Volunteers are being sought to record their feelings before and after eight walks on a free app, Go Jauntly, which could reveal what kind of treescapes most benefit our wellbeing and mental health.

My guide is Miles Richardson, professor of nature connectedness at the University of Derby, who hopes the data he gathers from the Treefest walks will discover how the age, size and shape of trees and woodlands benefit wellbeing. “With the government’s ambitious tree-planting targets, there’s going to be hundreds of new forests around the country,” said Richardson. “The whole project is about creating design tools so we can create the best treescape for 50 years’ time. Is the best way to do it with densely packed plantations of trees in regimented rows? Is that more beneficial to your wellbeing than a less linear approach? We don’t know.”

Scores of peer-reviewed studies have identified the myriad benefits of wooded landscapes on everything from improved cardiovascular and immune system health to depression, which decreased with immersion in a forest alongside lower levels of anxiety, anger, confusion and fatigue.

But it appears the type of forest may be important too: intriguingly, several studies suggest that more biodiversity has a bigger boost on people’s mental health, while the recording of brain activity in response to forest density found a more relaxed state and reduced tension and fatigue in forests with a lower density of trees (from 30% to 50%) – suggesting that densely packed conifer plantations aren’t so restorative. The article also details how future AI may connect us to nature, and how soundscapes also impact our mood.


Skin Care

Herbal Skin Care from Garden Plants: The great Larry Hodgson shares some tips for skin care based on common garden plants. Chamomile, mint, sage, lavender, thyme, rosemary, calendula and basil all have medicinal properties you can put to work to help your skin. This is a fun project to investigate this fall as our gardens begin to go dormant.