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The healing ocean: how life by the sea improves our well being

As I write this, the last rays of sunlight slip behind the Olympics, casting a tapestry of bronze, orange, and violet across cotton-tufted clouds. Dusk settles over Puget Sound, and far-off shipping boats begin to fade. Great blue herons return from the days’ fishing, sailing across the marshlands and cow pastures to their rookery in the cedars. Even in the cold of winter, the seaside invites visitors: a boy hunts for crabs beneath barnacle-covered rocks, an older couple reclines on a park bench, a family packs up their belongings as their golden retriever shakes sand and saltwater from its fur. Something about the ocean draws us all here.

We all have memories of days spent by the water. Many poets have captured the magic of the sea in their writing, including Pablo Neruda and Mary Oliver. Turns out, the ocean has scientifically-proven healing effects on our body & mind.

Recently, I read a wonderful book by Wallace J. Nichols called, “Blue Mind,” about the benefits of being near the sea. Nichols is a marine biologist who has spent most of his life in a marine environment. Through his work, he grew increasingly interested in how the ocean improves our physical and mental health. Combining neuroscience, biology, and history, Nichols presents a compelling case that just being near the ocean can shift our brain chemistry, hormone balance, and nervous system in a health-promoting way. He calls this shift, ‘blue mind.’ Simply put, being close to the ocean leaves us feeling refreshed. Just think of taking a coastal vacation, or the thought of a long stroll down the beach on a Summer day.

Being near the ocean decreases the stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine, promoting a relaxed state. Our brain begins to produce more theta waves as the adrenal glands balance stress hormone output. Theta waves are created when the mind is in a state of relaxed flow, such as during meditation. These waves are often described as a gentle ocean current. Listening to a recording of ocean waves crashing is a meditative technique for shifting the mind to a theta state. A theta state promotes the growth of new neurons and brain connections and encourages parasympathetic tone. In this way, being near the ocean gives our brain a chance to heal and develop. We relax the fight or flight instinct that is often over-engaged in our stimulating society. One way the ocean has this effect is through negative ions, which are ions that have gained a negative electrical charge. Found abundantly in nature, negative ions are particularly concentrated near the beach, and they have a number of positive health effects. Negative ions purify the air, decrease inflammation, and increase serotonin levels in the brain to promote a relaxed mood.

Nichols contrasts the state of ‘blue mind’ with what he coins ‘red mind,’ in reference to a stressed, fight or flight state. Many of us find ourselves slipping into patterns of stress and anxiety as we engage with modern life. Rushing to work, multi-tasking, prolonged computer use, and dealing with traffic can flood our nervous system with stress hormones. Over time, the brain can become primed to shift into a sympathetic, stressed-out state. ‘Red mind’ can block neural growth, immune function, and healthy sleep patterns. Taking time out for mindful meditation, deep breathing, laughter, and creative activities are all great ways to shift out of ‘red mind.’ As Nichols reveals, spending time by the sea is another highly effective strategy.

Public health experts are beginning to recognize the health benefits of the ocean. It is common practice for towns and cities to preserve green spaces for both environmental and community health. Green spaces, such as parks and greenbelts, provide welcome opportunities for recreation and relaxation amid busy urban environments. The health value of green space is well established in the research literature. Residents who live near them tend to live healthier, happier lives, regardless of income level. Similar research is now examining residents near coastal regions, finding that ‘blue spaces’ promote the health and wellbeing of the community as well. People who live near the sea tend to live longer, with less chronic disease. This amazing finding is true across income levels. In fact, lower income residents living near blue spaces showed the most health benefit. Researchers hypothesize that the health benefits may be due to more opportunities for recreation and physical activity.

Nichols’ work offers a deeper view: that the ocean has a profound effect on the inner-workings of the mind, promoting calm, health, and wellbeing. On a personal level, his book helps explain why I am drawn to live by the sea. Now more than ever, protecting our oceans is critical, both for the health of our planet and our own wellbeing.

~ Dr. Shawn

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