Getting Outdoors for Gut Health – How it Impacts Us Physically and Mentally

What absolutely beautiful weather we’ve been having here in the Midwest! After that deep freeze in mid-February, it’s been a dream to see sunshine and daytime highs in the 50’s and 60’s – even pushing 70 a couple of times! The return of warmer weather brings with it two of my favorite things – gardening season, and walking outdoors. This time of year does wonders for both physical and mental health.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing a lot for both! I decided to redo my garden this year to make an L-shaped raised bed and add a second greenhouse cover, so I’ve been hard at work setting that up. Concrete blocks, eight 42-lb-bags of garden soil, and shoveling lots of existing soil into its new home has proven quite the workout – my biceps are screaming as proof! When given the option between doing yard/garden work, and doing an “official” workout, I’m choosing the yard work every time!

However, I’ve also made a return to my outdoor lunchtime walks. At 12:30 on every sunny and warm day, I lace up my walking shoes and hit the pavement for a 20-minute one mile walk from my house, to a paved foot and bike trail a few blocks away. I’ve been doing my walks indoors since it’s been cold, but there is simply no comparison between indoors and out. Body movement is an undeniably important part of a healthy lifestyle, but exposure to the outdoors is significant for not only physical health, but mental health as well.

While reading Fiber Fueled by Gastroenterologist Dr. Will Bulsiewicz, I learned something new about the significance of getting outdoors. The book is all about gut health, and it turns out that our gut bugs absolutely thrive with exposure to nature. We have trillions of microorganisms in and on our bodies, the majority of those living in our gut microbiome. Each one of us has a unique makeup of these bugs. In fact, our gut microbiome is just as unique and individualized as our fingerprints. Even those of us living together in the same home, eating primarily the same meals and going to many of the same places, have vast differences in our microbiome.

The significance of the outdoors is that many of the gut bugs living in our microbiome come from nature. Just a simple walk outdoors can expose us to numerous bacteria that end up in our guts, which in turn contribute to our overall health in ways you’d never suspect. Now imagine what it would mean for our microbiome by doing something hands-on, like gardening, or kayaking, or rock climbing. The bacteria in our guts are among the oldest living organisms on the planet, and they’re living inside of us. The complexities of the microbiome are vast, and your gut is arguably the most important health factor deserving of your focus. These bacteria are involved in every function of our bodies from digestion, to detoxification, to our moods, and even cancer fighting! Each and every organ and system inside your body is affected by your gut, including (pretty significantly) your mental health.

The gut is actually known commonly as the second brain, because it is in constant communication with your brain. We think of the brain as the epicenter of emotions, hormones, stress…but each of these are actually triggered in the gut as well. In fact, over 90% of the body’s serotonin, the “happy hormone” that combats stress, is produced in the gut. A happy gut makes for a happy life – quite literally. So getting outdoors and exposing yourself to nature does so much more for your body than just keep you in physical shape.

Sun exposure is another important factor in mood and mental health. In parts of the world where it is often cloudy, rainy, snowy, or dark because of its proximity to the poles, Seasonal Affective Disorder can occur. This is a depressive state that is caused primarily by lack of exposure to sunlight, and is actually treated by use of artificial sun lamps. Even those of us who do not live in places where the sun is frequently hidden may feel some effects of SAD during the winter months when we are spending much of our time indoors.

One of my favorite feelings is what Thumper described on Bambi as “twitterpated”. When the air warms and the birds return and start to sing their songs at dawn – I feel downright giddy and want to spend every second I can outside soaking it all in. Nature is the most natural mood lifter there is, and the benefits to our physical and mental health are indisputable. If you haven’t already, work in some time this weekend, or in your evenings after work, to get outside. Go for a walk, hit a hiking trail, clean up your yard, take your yoga mat to the patio, plant some bulbs or seeds – anything to get you outdoors.

Start working some outdoor time into your routine, just as you would healthy meals and workouts. Your body, your gut, and your mind will thank you!