Planetary Health

forest walk

Human health and planetary health are deeply and inseparably linked. While my job is related to supporting the health of humans, this is not possible without the health of planet earth. In this blog post, we will explore some of the ways that human and planetary health are related, simple actions that you can take, why you shouldn’t feel guilty, and what to do about eco-anxiety.

It is well known that the health of the planet is in crisis in many ways. From climate change, habitat loss, plastic in the ocean, to global pollution, and species extinction, the impact of humans on the planet is profound and nearing a tipping point at which time damage may be irreparable and catastrophic.

“We have been mortgaging the health of future generations to realize economic and development gains in the present” - The Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health

There are countless ways that the damage to our earth impacts our health. It is known that our bodies contain an enormous number of synthetic chemicals, many of which are linked to cancer and other harms. We are also exposed to increasing amounts of hormone disrupting chemicals. Climate change is causing heat and weather-related illness and deaths, respiratory disease, and an increase in infectious and tick/insect-related illnesses, such as Lyme disease.

Unfortunately, another consequence of our deteriorating planetary health is “Eco-anxiety” or “Ecological Grief”, terms coined to capture the emotional distress related to experienced or anticipated ecological loss. If you are experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety as a result of considering ecological issues, consider taking action (keep reading), supporting your own resiliency (also, keep reading) and reaching out for help to cope.

Planetary Health ACTION that you can take

Nature Connectedness – Spending time in nature improves our mental wellbeing. A large study found that a minimum of 2 hours per week was required to get this benefit, although it could be all at once or in smaller amounts of time. When we spend time in nature, we feel more connected with nature and this changes our behaviour in subtle ways in the direction of conservation and sustainability.

Diet – There are many ways that you can make small changes to your diet that impact the planet in a positive way. Food waste is a less known, but highly significant contributor to carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. Consider meal planning as a way to streamline your grocery shopping and decrease waste. Save your leftovers (they make a great, easy lunch). And the next two earth-friendly diet changes have massive benefits for both the planet AND you! One is to decrease the amount of processed and packaged food and the second is to decrease the intake of animal products. Choosing unprocessed, whole foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains (like brown rice), nuts and seeds and legumes (like lentils, beans, and chickpeas) means less packaging waste and less resources required in processing and transportation compared with processed foods. The environmental impacts of processed food can be wide-ranging; for example, many contain palm oil. Palm oil is grown in areas of the world where the rainforest is cleared to make way for this crop, contributing to deforestation, species loss and climate change. Unprocessed, whole foods are also HIGHLY associated with lower risks of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and the risk of dying for any reason. There is increasing attention to the impact of animal products on climate change, through their high use of recourses, impact on deforestation and release of climate warming gasses. There is also, robust evidence that consuming fewer animal products in related to positive health impacts. I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to be vegetarian (I occasionally ask patients to eat MORE animal products for health reasons), but trying to observe “Meatless Monday” or finding other ways to eat a bit less meat adds up. If you are not a fan of traditional vegetarian meals, the great news is there is surge in imitation meat products available on the market which can make meatless meals more accessible to everyone’s pallet. If you need help designing a healthy diet that's lower in processed foods and animal products, please let me know. If you want to read more about the Lancet’s Planetary Diet, you can HERE.

Transportation – We all know about the benefits of exercise for our health. Consider how you could use exercise as a method of transportation (walk, bike or run as a way of getting someplace). You might find that exercise with a purpose can be more motivating.

Household products – Consider the cleaning products that you use in your home. An empty spray bottle can be filled with equal parts vinegar and water and a few drops of an essential oil for a natural all-purpose cleaning solution that is safer for you and the planet. If you are a menstruating woman, consider the Diva cup as an alternative to disposable menstrual products. Try to use glass containers to store food – they last longer than plastic and don’t have the same hormone-disrupting potential.

Consumption – The drive to consume, whether its food or material purchases, is complex. Unfortunately, there is an enormous industry that aims to get you to buy stuff. And all of this manufacturing, transporting, and disposing of things (clothes, personal care products, home décor, and really, anything else in our homes) has a tremendous environmental toll. Many companies aim to increase their sales but creating a desire among consumers and there are times when this conflicts with our wellbeing. Some marketing is based on convincing us that we are inadequate or that our lives are incomplete without their products. Taking time to reflect on the motivations to consume and addressing those emotional triggers and drivers for our consumption behaviours allows us to take back some power; techniques like mindfulness may help. I spent some time last year doing a “buy nothing new” challenge which I found very helpful in reflecting on some of my previous patterns of purchasing. I was also pleasantly surprised at how I was able to meet my needs by borrowing, second hand shopping, and repairing things, rather than rushing to purchase new items.  

Coping – The state of the environment can be distressing, particularly when we feel that it is beyond our control. To decrease those feelings of helplessness, take small and consistent actions, and stay informed. Foster your own connection with nature. Take care of your wellbeing by eating well and staying active and reach out to a professional for help for symptoms that are impacting your life. Also, know when to disengage from media and news. We all need breaks and to focus on other topics in order to stay optimistic. And be sure to be realistic about your perceived level of responsibility for the current state of the environment – corporations play a disproportionately large role in impacting the environment but have created a narrative that suggests consumers should recycle their way out of the current mess, rather than acknowledging their responsibility and taking action. Be careful that the level of personal responsibility that you take on is proportionate to your ability to make change and take care of your wellbeing.

Ecopsychology is an approach to mental wellness that considers the connection between the mind and the environment around us. Humans evolved in natural environments and this connection with nature is vitally important to our wellbeing. Consider reflecting on how you feel in different environments, what places help you to feel restored, how the environments that you enjoy have changed over time and what you can do to care for them.

“The Environment is not outside of you, but within you – You are Nature embodied. We are weaved as one, connected by the Air we breath and the Water we drink. When you care for the Earth, you care for yourself. When you harm the Earth, you harm yourself and all of the beings here. May we come back into good relation with all of Creation and care for our original Mother.” – Dr. Jacqui Wilkins ND

For a terrific read on the way earth cares for us and we have the opportunity to care for it, I highly recommend the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.