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Can Probiotics Improve the Health of Your Brain?
By Dr. Ruairi Robertson
Did you know that there are roughly 40 trillion bacteria living in and on you?
Most of these bacteria reside in your gut and don't cause any health problems.
In fact, scientists have begun to realize that these bacteria are essential for your physical health.
Now compelling new research has found these bacteria may also be beneficial for your brain and mental health.
This article explains how your brain is affected by gut bacteria and the role probiotics may play.
What Are Probiotics?
The word "probiotic" is derived from the Latin words "pro," meaning to promote and "biotic," meaning life.
Importantly, in order for a certain species of bacteria to be termed "probiotic," it must have a lot of scientific evidence behind it showing a specific health benefit.
Unfortunately, the word probiotic has become overused by food and pharmaceutical companies who were calling some bacteria probiotics even if they had no scientifically proven health benefit.
This led the European Food Safety Authority to ban the word "probiotic" on all foods in the European Union.
However, there is a lot of new scientific evidence showing that some bacterial species have true benefits for health.
Most probiotics belong to one of two types of bacteria: Lactobacillus or Bifidobacteria. There are many different species and strains within these groups and they may have different effects on the body.
Bottom Line: Probiotics are live microorganisms that have a proven health benefit for the body.
How Are Your Intestines and Brain Connected?
The intestines and brain are connected physically and biochemically.
The physical connection between the intestines and brain is through the central nervous system, which controls all of the activities of the body.
The vagus nerve is a large nerve that sends signals between the intestines and brain (7).
The brain is also connected to the intestines through your gut microbes. Molecules that they produce can act as signals that the brain can detect (7).
In the past, scientists have estimated that a person has approximately 100 trillion bacterial cells in their body and only 10 trillion human cells, meaning your own cells are outnumbered by 10 to 1 (8).
However, recent estimates suggest that you have roughly 30 trillion human cells and 40 trillion bacteria. This is still pretty impressive and means that, by number of cells, you are more bacteria than human (9).
The majority of these bacteria are in your gut, so they're in direct contact with the cells that line your intestines and with everything that enters your body. That includes food, medicines and microbes.
Alongside your gut bacteria, there are many other microbes, such as yeasts and fungi. Collectively, these microbes are known as the gut microbiota or gut microbiome (10).
Each of these bacteria can produce different compounds, such as short-chain fatty acids, neurotransmitters and amino acids. Many of these substances have effects on the brain (11).
Bottom Line: There are thousands of different species of bacteria in the human body, mostly in the intestines. In general, these bacteria are good for your health and may even influence brain health.
An Altered Microbiota May Contribute to a Number of Diseases
The term "gut dysbiosis" refers to when the intestines and gut bacteria are in a diseased state. This may be due to the presence of disease-causing bacteria, which may also lead to chronic inflammation.
Interestingly, some studies have shown that people with certain mental disorders also have an altered microbiota. However, it is unclear if this is a cause of such diseases or the result of an altered diet and lifestyle (22, 23, 24, 25).
Since the gut and brain are connected and gut bacteria produce substances that can influence the brain, probiotics may be able to benefit the brain and mental health.
A number of recent studies have investigated this, but most have been in animals. However, a few have shown interesting results in humans.
Bottom Line: A number of diseases, including mental disorders, are associated with higher disease-causing bacteria in the intestines. Some probiotics may be able to restore healthy bacteria to reduce symptoms.
Taking Probiotic Supplements May Reduce Symptoms of Stress, Anxiety and Depression
Only one study has examined how probiotics affect patients with clinically diagnosed depression.
In the study, consuming a mixture of three Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria strains for eight weeks significantly reduced depressive symptoms. The probiotic also reduced inflammation in the patients (30).
A handful of other studies have examined how probiotics affect depressive symptoms in healthy subjects. In healthy people, certain probiotics may reduce:
- Depressive symptoms (34)
- Psychological distress (35)
- Academic stress (36)
Bottom Line: Certain probiotics may reduce anxiety, stress and depressive symptoms in healthy people. More research is needed about potential benefits for people with clinically diagnosed psychological disorders.
Taking Probiotic Supplements May Reduce Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Bottom Line: IBS is commonly associated with elevated levels of anxiety and depression. Probiotics appear to help reduce IBS symptoms.
Certain Probiotics May Enhance Mood
In healthy people without a psychological disorder, some probiotics may help improve mood.
One study treated participants daily for four weeks with a probiotic mix containing eight different Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria strains.
The researchers found that taking the supplements reduced participants' negative thoughts associated with a sad mood (45).
Another study showed that consuming a milk drink containing a probiotic called Lactobacillus casei for three weeks improved mood in people who had the lowest mood before the treatment (46).
Interestingly, this study also found that people scored slightly lower on a memory test after taking the probiotic. Further research is needed to validate these results.
Bottom Line: A few studies have shown that taking certain probiotics for a few weeks may slightly improve mood.
Certain Probiotics May Have Benefits After Traumatic Brain Injury
Traumatic brain injury usually involves admission to an intensive care unit. During this time, food is usually administered enterally, meaning through a tube.
In some cases, breathing also has to be assisted with a tube, which can increase the risk of infection. Infections in people with traumatic brain injuries can lead to further complications.
A few studies have found that adding certain probiotics into enteral nutrition can reduce the number of infections in the patients with traumatic brain injury and the length of time they spend in the intensive care unit (47, 48, 49).
The effects of the probiotics on these outcomes may be due to their benefits for the immune system.
Bottom Line: Administering probiotics after traumatic brain injury may reduce patients' rate of infections and length of stay in intensive care.
Other Beneficial Effects of Probiotics on the Brain
A handful of other studies have shown that probiotics may have interesting benefits for the brain.
One intriguing study looked at images of women's brains after they consumed a mix of Bifidobacteria, Streptococcus, Lactobacillus and Lactococcus strains.
Consuming the probiotic affected regions of the brain that control emotion and sensation (50).
Bottom Line: Some probiotics may influence the function of the brain and symptoms of multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia. However, this research is still very new, so the results aren't clear.
Should You Be Taking a Probiotic for Your Brain?
At the moment, there is not enough evidence to definitively say that probiotics benefit the brain. Therefore, they cannot yet be considered a treatment for any brain-related disorders.
If you're looking to treat such disorders, consult a doctor.
Thus far, scientific evidence does show a clear connection between the gut and the brain. It's an exciting area of research that is expanding rapidly.
If necessary, taking probiotic supplements can help you increase the beneficial bacterial species in your intestines. In general, consuming probiotics is safe and causes few side effects.
If you're buying a probiotic, choose one that has scientific evidence behind it. Lactobacillus GG (LGG) and VSL#3 have both been widely studied and shown a number of health benefits.
Bottom Line: Probiotics have been shown to benefit other aspects of health, but not enough research has been done to definitively demonstrate whether probiotics have positive effects on the brain.
Take Home Message
Although the research is promising, it is too soon to recommend any probiotic specifically to boost brain health.
Still, current evidence gives some food for thought about how probiotics may be used to enhance brain health in the future.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Authority Nutrition.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Jeremy Deaton
You may have heard about the hole in the ozone layer, which hovers over Antarctica. It has shrunk over time thanks to policies that curbed the use of ozone-depleting chemicals. In the nearly 40 years that NASA has kept track, it has never been smaller. That's the good news.
Polar stratospheric clouds activate the chemicals that deplete the ozone layer. NASA
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By Stephanie Woodard
Many Americans are now experiencing an erratic food supply for the first time. Among COVID-19's disruptions are bare supermarket shelves and items available yesterday but nowhere to be found today. As you seek ways to replace them, you can look to Native gardens for ideas and inspiration.
Aubrey Skye, Standing Rock Sioux tribal member, tills gardens for himself and other tribal members. He does some by hand, and others with this tractor. Photo by Stephanie Woodard.
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By Kristeen Cherney
Skin inflammation, which includes swelling and redness, occurs as an immune system reaction. While redness and swelling can develop for a variety of reasons, rashes and burns are perhaps the most common symptoms. More severe skin inflammation can require medications, but sometimes mild rashes may be aided with home remedies like aloe vera.
When Aloe Vera for Redness May Treat Irritation and Inflammation<p>Aloe vera has anti-inflammatory properties that may help <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/home-remedies-for-rashes" target="_blank">soothe skin rashes</a>. As a bonus, aloe is also thought to have antimicrobial capabilities, which may in turn help to prevent infections. Additionally, aloe vera gel is known for its ability to help moisturize your skin without leaving any residue that heavy creams sometimes can.</p><p>While aloe vera can't cure any skin disease or treat every single instance of skin inflammation, here are the instances where it could possibly help:</p><h3>Burns</h3><p>Aloe vera gel is perhaps best known for its ability to help treat burns. If you've ever had a <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/skin/aloe-vera-for-sunburn" target="_blank">sunburn</a>, you may have used an OTC gel to help reduce itchiness, redness, and overall irritation. The same concept may apply to mild heat or chemical burns.</p><p>To use aloe vera for burn treatment, apply it liberally to the affected area multiple times per day. You may know it's time to apply more if your skin starts feeling hot. Aloe vera is safe to use until symptoms of your burn start to improve after a day or two.</p><p>While aloe vera may provide temporary burn relief along with a cooling effect, it won't reverse any damage that may have been done to your skin. It also isn't an appropriate treatment for <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/burns" target="_blank">more severe burns</a>, which can include symptoms such as boils, blisters, and peeling skin.</p>
When Aloe May Worsen Symptoms<p>Aloe can help alleviate symptoms of <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/rashes" target="_blank">skin rashes</a> that are mild in nature. However, it's not considered an effective treatment for more serious inflammatory skin conditions. Aloe vera may also—in rare cases—cause skin inflammation. Don't use aloe vera if you have an allergy to it.</p><h3>Can aloe vera cause a skin rash?</h3><p>While considered safe for most people, there is a risk of an allergic reaction to aloe vera. In such cases, you might see signs of <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/contact-dermatitis" target="_blank">contact dermatitis</a>, which can develop when your skin comes in contact with an irritating or allergenic substance. Symptoms may include:</p><ul><li>redness</li><li>hives</li><li>itching</li><li>skin rash</li></ul><p><span></span>If you've never used aloe vera before, you should conduct a <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/allergy-testing#testing" target="_blank">patch test</a> to make sure you're not allergic. This involves applying the gel to a non-conspicuous area of skin, such as the inside of your elbow. The downside is you have to wait at least 24 hours to see if any irritation develops. If no such reactions occur, then it should be safe to use the product on your skin rashes.</p>
Can Aloe Vera Make Eczema Worse?<p>Aloe vera won't likely make eczema worse unless you're allergic to it. The greater risk is relying on aloe for eczema treatment when it may not actually work. Aloe vera gel could temporarily alleviate feelings of burning, but it can't treat the underlying causes of your eczema rashes.</p><p>Sometimes eczema rashes may bleed due to scratching. You should not apply aloe to broken skin, as this can increase burning sensations.</p>
When to See a Doctor<p>Aloe vera can help soothe certain cases of skin inflammation, but most effects are temporary at best. If your symptoms last longer than a few days, get progressively worse, or spread throughout your entire body, then it's time to see a doctor to evaluate your skin rash.</p><p>A doctor may also refer you to a dermatologist, who specializes in the treatment of skin disorders. They can help diagnose the cause of your rashes and help treat the underlying source of inflammation, rather than the symptoms alone.</p><p>You should also see a doctor if you experience any negative reactions after using aloe gel. This could indicate an allergy to aloe vera. If you suspect an allergic reaction, stop using aloe right away.</p><p><em>Never </em>take aloe vera gel or cream, aloe latex, or whole-leaf extract orally.</p><p>Seek immediate medical care if you suspect your rash <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/skin-infection" target="_blank">is infected</a>. Signs may include fever, blisters, and pus-filled lesions in your rash. Extremely painful rashes also require medical attention.</p>
Takeaway<p>Due to its ability to soothe inflammation and wounds, aloe vera can be a temporary solution to treat the symptoms of a mild burn or skin rash. However, aloe vera isn't a viable treatment option for more severe burns or severe inflammatory skin conditions, such as eczema and rosacea. Stronger medications are needed for more severe skin rashes.</p><p>While rare, aloe vera may also cause an allergic reaction in some people. Always conduct a skin patch test for use, and discontinue any aloe gel products if you notice any new rashes.</p>
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- 8 Best Vitamins and Supplements for Dry Skin - EcoWatch ›
- 8 Health Benefits of Antioxidant-Rich Aloe Vera - EcoWatch ›
By Katie Lambert and Sarah Gleim
The United Nations suggests that climate change is not just the defining issue of our time, but we are also at a defining moment in history. Weather patterns are changing and will threaten food production, and sea levels are rising and could cause catastrophic flooding across the globe. Countries must make drastic actions to avoid a future with irreversible damage to major ecosystems and planetary climate.
- Cut Beef Consumption in Half to Help Save the Earth, Says New Study ›
- Bill McKibben: How to Save the Planet From Trump - EcoWatch ›
- 50 Ways You Can Help Save the Earth - EcoWatch ›
Blue Light Disrupts Your Sleep<p>Your body has an internal clock that regulates your circadian rhythm — the 24-hour biological cycle that influences many internal functions.<span></span></p><p>Most importantly, it determines when your body is primed for being awake or <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/10-reasons-why-good-sleep-is-important" target="_blank">asleep</a>.</p><p>However, your circadian rhythm needs signals from the external environment — most importantly daylight and darkness — to adjust itself.</p><p>Blue-wavelength light stimulates sensors in your eyes to send signals to your brain's internal clock.</p><p>Keep in mind that sunlight and white light contain a mixture of various wavelengths, each of which has a significant amount of blue light.<a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18075803" target="_blank"></a></p><p>Getting blue light, especially from the sun, in the daytime helps you stay alert while improving performance and mood.</p><p>Blue light therapy devices may help treat depression, and blue light bulbs have been shown to reduce fatigue and improve the mood, performance, and sleep of office workers.</p><p>Yet, modern light bulbs and electronic devices, especially computer monitors, likewise produce large amounts of blue light and may disrupt your internal clock if you're exposed to them during the evening.</p><p>When it gets dark, your pineal gland secretes the hormone <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/melatonin-and-sleep" target="_blank">melatonin</a>, which tells your body to get tired and go to sleep.</p><p>Blue light, whether from the sun or a laptop, is very effective at inhibiting melatonin production — thus reducing both the quantity and quality of your sleep.</p><p>Studies link melatonin suppression in the evening to various health problems, including metabolic syndrome, obesity, cancer, and depression.</p><p><strong>Summary</strong></p><p><strong></strong>Blue light in the evening tricks your brain into thinking it's daytime, which inhibits the production of melatonin and reduces both the quantity and quality of your sleep.</p>
Tinted Glasses May Help<p>Amber-tinted glasses offer the easiest and most effective way to avoid blue light exposure at night.</p><p>These glasses effectively block all blue light. Thus, your brain doesn't get the signal that it's supposed to stay awake.</p><p>Studies show that when people use blue-light-blocking glasses, even in a lit room or while using an electronic device, they produce just as much melatonin as if it were dark.</p><p>In one study, people's melatonin levels in the evening were compared across dim light, bright light, and bright light with tinted glasses.<a href="http://press.endocrine.org/doi/full/10.1210/jc.2004-2062" target="_blank"></a></p><p>The bright light almost completely suppressed melatonin production, while the dim light did not.</p><p>Notably, those wearing the glasses produced the same amount of melatonin as those exposed to dim light. The glasses largely canceled out the melatonin-suppressing effect of the bright light.</p><p>Likewise, blue-light-blocking glasses have been shown to spur major improvements in sleep and <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/11-brain-foods" target="_blank">mental performance</a>.</p><p>In one 2-week study, 20 individuals used either blue-light-blocking glasses or glasses that didn't block blue light for 3 hours before bedtime. The former group experienced major improvements in both sleep quality and mood.</p><p>These glasses have also been found to greatly improve sleep in shift workers when worn before bedtime.</p><p>What's more, in a study in older adults with cataracts, blue-light-blocking lenses improved sleep and significantly reduced daytime dysfunction.</p><p>That said, not all studies support the use of blue-light-blocking lenses or glasses. One analysis of several studies concluded that there's a lack of high quality evidence supporting their use.</p><p>Nevertheless, blue-light-blocking glasses may provide some benefits.</p><p><strong>Shop blue-light-blocking glasses <a href="https://amzn.to/2WmW4M8" target="_blank">online</a>.</strong></p><p><strong>Summary</strong></p><p><strong></strong>Some studies suggest that blue-light-blocking glasses may increase melatonin production during the evening, leading to major improvements in sleep and mood.</p>
Other Blocking Methods<p>If you don't want to use glasses every night, there are a few other ways to reduce blue light exposure.</p><p>One popular way is to install a program called f.lux on your computer.</p><p>This program automatically adjusts the color and brightness of your screen based on your timezone. When it's dark outside, it effectively blocks all blue light and gives your monitor a faint orange hue.</p><p>Similar apps are available for your smartphone.</p><p>A few other tips include:</p><ul><li>turning off all lights in your home 1–2 hours before bedtime</li><li>getting a red or orange reading lamp, which doesn't emit blue light (candlelight works well, too)</li><li>keeping your bedroom completely dark or using a sleep mask</li></ul><p>It's also important to expose yourself to plenty of blue light during the day.</p><p>If you can, go outside to get sunlight exposure. Otherwise, consider a blue light therapy device — a strong lamp that simulates the sun and bathes your face and eyes in blue light.</p><p><strong>Summary</strong></p><p><strong></strong>Other ways to block blue light in the evening include dimming or turning off the lights in your home and installing an app that adjusts the light your laptop and smartphone emit.</p>
The Bottom Line<p>Blue light, which is emitted from smartphones, computers, and bright lights, may inhibit your sleep if you're exposed to it at night.</p><p>If you have a history of sleeping problems, try reducing your exposure to blue light during the evenings.</p><p>Amber-tinted glasses may be particularly effective.</p><p>Several studies support their ability to <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/17-tips-to-sleep-better" target="_blank">improve sleep quality</a>.</p>
Junjira Konsang / Pixabay
By Matt Casale
For many Americans across the country, staying home to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) means adapting to long-term telework for the first time. We're doing a lot more video conferencing and working out all the kinks that come along with it.
The author (above) wrote this while working from home, baby in tow. Emily Anderson (author's wife/home office mate)<p>The coronavirus will pass, but it's looking more and more like remote work will stick around. This time has demonstrated that, despite the ups and downs many of us have experienced, <a href="https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/04/06/telecommuting-will-likely-continue-long-after-the-pandemic/" target="_blank">telework works</a> for way more of us than we knew.</p><p>Even before this we knew that there were several benefits for both employers and employees to sidestepping the office. <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/andrealoubier/2017/07/20/benefits-of-telecommuting-for-the-future-of-work/#3f278e0916c6" target="_blank">Studies have shown</a> that it can lead to increased productivity, higher morale and lower employee turnover. It can also reduce real estate and office operation costs for employers.</p><p>We may now also be seeing some larger societal benefits that make the case for taking telework even further. Our current situation has provided a window into how a reduction in driving, buoyed, in part, by a greater adoption of telework, could relieve some of the stress on our overburdened transportation system and help heal at least a portion of the environmental damage it causes.</p><p>Today, roads that would normally clogged at all hours of the day are <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/photos-empty-airports-trains-roads-during-coronavirus" target="_blank">virtually empty</a>, even during rush hour. And the reduced car travel leads to fewer crashes and less air pollution, which harms human health and contributes to global warming. Air that's usually cloudy with smog has cleared. Los Angeles, which has notoriously pollution-choked skies, could recently boast having the <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/07/us/los-angeles-pollution-clean-air-coronavirus-trnd/index.html" target="_blank">cleanest air in the world</a>. And this year, experts predict, the transportation transformation will contribute to the <a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-coronavirus-set-to-cause-largest-ever-annual-fall-in-co2-emissions" target="_blank">largest-ever annual decline in global carbon emissions</a>.</p>
Virtually empty Los Angeles streets on May 7. Chris Yarzab / CC BY 2.0<p>Clearly not every job can be done from home, and it's not just commuting for work that has come to a halt during coronavirus lockdowns. In 2017 only around <a href="https://nhts.ornl.gov/assets/2017_nhts_summary_travel_trends.pdf" target="_blank">28 percent</a> of total miles driven were work-related. Even if telework continues or expands on a much larger scale, non-work-related car trips — shopping, recreation, visits to doctors and the like — can be expected to go back to normal.</p><p>Still, telework's potential for taking cars off the road can clearly have an impact on global warming emissions and air pollution. Just how much of an impact could telework have? As it turns out, the answer is a significant one — and with a few important steps, the benefits can be even greater and more sustainable.</p>
How Much of the Workforce Could Reasonably and Permanently Transition to Telework?<p>According to the U.S. Census Bureau, <a href="https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/13/people-who-work-from-home-earn-more-than-those-who-commuteheres-why.html" target="_blank">5.2 percent of U.S. workers</a> — around 8 million people — worked from home in 2017. But that's still just a fraction of potential teleworkers. Earlier this month researchers at the University of Chicago found that <a href="https://bfi.uchicago.edu/wp-content/uploads/BFI_White-Paper_Dingel_Neiman_3.2020.pdf" target="_blank">37 percent of U.S. jobs can plausibly be performed at home</a>. The U.S. workforce reached <a href="https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/CLF16OV" target="_blank">164.5 million</a> in February 2020, before the pandemic, meaning approximately 61 million of those workers could plausibly telework permanently once the economy starts up again.</p><p>Of course, the full economic consequences of this public health crisis are still unknown. It's possible that coronavirus-related job losses will impact the overall number of those employed for some time. But for these purposes, this assumption of 53 million new remote workers will be useful to illustrate the potential impacts of telework.</p>
How Much Driving Would Full-Capacity Telework Avoid?<p>In 2019 Americans drove a total <a href="https://afdc.energy.gov/data/10315" target="_blank">3.23 trillion miles</a>, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The DoE doesn't break that down by reasons driving, but we know that in 2017 there were <a href="https://nhts.ornl.gov/assets/2017_nhts_summary_travel_trends.pdf" target="_blank">683 billion total commute miles</a> driven. Reducing the commuting workforce by about 32 percent (37 percent of total workers who could telecommute minus the 5.2 percent of them who already do) would theoretically decrease commuting totals by about 219 billion miles.</p>
A traffic jam on January 17. Raphael Labaca Castro / CC BY-SA 2.0<p>Of course telecommuting won't let us avoid logging <em>all</em> of those miles, since people may occasionally still need to travel to an office for meetings and may need to make new trips they wouldn't otherwise have taken (you can't stop at the grocery store on the way home from work when you work at home). Various studies have found that telecommuting actually reduces driving somewhere between <a href="https://ww3.arb.ca.gov/cc/sb375/policies/telecommuting/telecommuting_brief120313.pdf" target="_blank">60 and 90</a> percent of commute vehicle miles traveled (VMT). We'll split the difference and calculate that telework reduces commute miles by about 75%, meaning the new teleworkers could avoid around 164 billion miles driven.</p>
U.S. Department of Energy, Alternative Fuels Data Center<p>Still, that much of a transformation may not work for everyone, as people will still need to do face-to-face work — and, let's be honest, the other thing the lockdowns have taught us is to appreciate the value of regular social contact. That said, even if most people worked from home two to three days a week and the actual VMT reduction were closer to 2 or 3 percent, the difference would still be significant — especially considering that VMT has been <a href="https://afdc.energy.gov/data/10315" target="_blank">steadily rising</a> since the 1970s, except for a few years during economic downturns. Even if just a quarter of American workers started working from home one day a week, total vehicle miles traveled would fall by <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063006473" target="_blank">1</a> percent — not a huge amount, but enough to make a difference on a grander scale.</p>
Impact on Global Warming Emissions<p>The cars and trucks we drive every day are major sources of air pollution and global warming emissions. Transportation as a whole accounts for <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">28</a> percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., more than any other source. Light-duty vehicles and medium- and heavy-duty trucks are responsible for<a href="https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/fast-facts-transportation-greenhouse-gas-emissions" target="_blank"> 82</a> percent of the transportation sector's emissions.</p><p>The average American car or SUV emits <a href="https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/greenhouse-gas-emissions-typical-passenger-vehicle" target="_blank">404 grams</a> of carbon dioxide (CO2) per mile traveled. So reducing commuting by 164 billion miles would avoid 66 million metric tons of CO2 emissions annually. These are significant emissions reductions, but they'd only make a small dent in total transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, which reached nearly <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">1.9 billion metric tons</a> in 2018.</p>
Impact on Health-harming Air Pollution<p>People across America regularly breathe polluted air, which increases their risk of attacks and other adverse health impacts, and even premature death. In fact, in 2018 <a href="https://uspirg.org/sites/pirg/files/reports/EnvironmentAmerica_TroubleintheAir_scrn.pdf" target="_blank">108 million Americans</a> lived in areas that experienced more than 100 days of degraded air quality. Our cars and trucks are a major source of this pollution, which includes ozone, particulate matter and other smog-forming emissions.</p><p>There's a reason the air has cleared over many of our major cities during the coronavirus lockdowns. When you remove cars from the road, you also remove smog. The lockdowns have resulted in an extreme reduction of VMT — between <a href="https://frontiergroup.org/blogs/blog/fg/america-pause-vehicle-travel-during-covid-19-and-what-comes-next" target="_blank">68 and 72</a> percent across the country (and in some places closer to 90 percent). Assuming that telework has contributed something close to its peak potential reduction of 7 percent, it seems likely that it has played at least a supporting role in helping to clear our skies.</p>
Additional Emissions Reductions From Reduced Traffic<p>The average American commuter wastes <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/22/us/traffic-commute-gridlock-transportation-study-trnd/index.html" target="_blank">54 hours</a> a year stuck in traffic. That's lost time with friends and families, lost productivity at work, wasted money, tons of unnecessary stress, and a lot more pollution from idling cars.</p><p>Traffic patterns are complicated because traffic is <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2014/12/4-steps-to-tackling-traffic-congestion/" target="_blank">non-linear</a>, meaning there isn't a one-to-one ratio of percentage of cars removed to percentage of traffic alleviated. As such, just a <a href="https://www.accessmagazine.org/spring-2017/the-access-almanac-traffic-congestion-is-counter-intuitive-and-fixable/" target="_blank">few extra cars</a> on or off the road can have an outsize impact on traffic. Reducing commute VMT by up to 7 percent would have a huge impact on rush hour traffic (when bottlenecks are at their worst and most of that driving occurs). A greater adoption of telework could give people back some of those 54 hours so they can spend it doing the things that matter to them. And slow moving or stop and go traffic results in <a href="https://www.accessmagazine.org/fall-2009/traffic-congestion-greenhouse-gases/" target="_blank">greater emissions</a> than free-flowing traffic. So freeing up the roads and alleviating traffic for the remaining will result in even greater emissions reductions.</p>
What Needs to Happen for Telework to Live Up to Its Potential?<p>It's clear that telework can have significant societal benefits, including less global warming pollution and cleaner skies. But significant benefits are only possible if everyone whose job could plausibly be done from home has that opportunity.</p><p>To reach that goal, several barriers must be overcome:</p><p><em>Technology: </em>We've all had technical mix-ups when using Zoom or Google Hangouts or one of the other conferencing platforms. But the real technological barrier is access to broadband. <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/internet-broadband/#who-has-home-broadband" target="_blank">Roughly three-quarters</a> of American adults have broadband internet service at home, but the rate of access is much lower in rural parts of the country, according to a report by Pew Research Center. Those locations often don't have broadband infrastructure and even <a href="https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/04/06/telecommuting-will-likely-continue-long-after-the-pandemic/" target="_blank">14</a> percent of households in urban areas lack access, usually because they are not able to afford it. States should make funding available to develop broadband capacity in underserved areas.</p><p><em>Employer policies and managerial reluctance</em>: Coronavirus lockdowns across the country have forced employers and managers to adapt to large-scale telework quickly on an emergency basis, meaning these barriers are less likely relevant now than before. But general employer and manager <a href="https://www.gao.gov/assets/690/683455.pdf" target="_blank">reluctance</a> to embrace working from home has slowed this transition. Cities and states can encourage employer acceptance of telework by providing <a href="https://www.boston.com/news/local-news/2019/07/25/gov-baker-proposes-telecommuting-tax-break-for-companies" target="_blank">tax benefits</a> or other incentives for greater adoption.</p><p><em>Car-centered transportation policies: </em>Our current transportation policies often incentivize driving or parking. From commuter and parking benefits to decades of outsized spending on <a href="https://uspirg.org/reports/usp/highway-boondoggles-5" target="_blank">highway infrastructure</a>, we tip the scales toward getting behind an automobile's wheel. In other words, our transportation policies are meant to move cars rather than incentivize things, such as telework, that would take cars off the road.</p><p>We need to rethink this approach and shift toward better "<a href="https://ops.fhwa.dot.gov/plan4ops/trans_demand.htm" target="_blank">Transportation Demand Management</a>." This requires the implementation of a set of strategies aimed at maximizing traveler choices. Those strategies should include greater employer and employee incentives for telework, as well as policies designed to facilitate more walking, biking, ridesharing, vanpooling and public transportation use.</p>
Bikeshare in Milan, October 2019. Guilhem Vellut / CC BY 2.0<p>That's important, because the potential gains we'd see from telework would only be sustained if that shift were paired with other policies to ensure those commuter miles aren't just replaced with other trips. We usually talk about this in relation to widening or building new highways, but when you open up highway capacity, it usually fills quickly. This is what the wonks call "<a href="https://uspirg.org/reports/usp/highway-boondoggles-5" target="_blank">induced demand</a>." People who otherwise would have driven at a different time of day, taken a different route, taken public transportation or would have avoided traffic on the highway some other way, come back to the road. The same could happen here if additional measures aren't taken.</p><p>It's likely that, even after the coronavirus lockdowns are over, telework is going to become more and more common in the American workforce. As it does, the environmental benefits will be significant. In a time when climate change presents an existential threat to life as we know it and millions of people across the world are subjected to unhealthy levels of air pollution, we need to be taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to solving these problems. Telework can clearly be a significant part of the long-term solution — especially if we take further steps to maximize its potential.</p>
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By Richard leBrasseur
The COVID-19 pandemic has altered humans' relationship with natural landscapes in ways that may be long-lasting. One of its most direct effects on people's daily lives is reduced access to public parks.
Making Healthy Places<p>Olmsted was born in 1822 but became a landscape architect rather late in his career, at <a href="https://www.olmsted.org/the-olmsted-legacy/olmsted-theory-and-design-principles/olmsted-his-essential-theory" target="_blank">age 43</a>. His ideas evolved from a diverse and unique set of experiences.</p><p>From the start, Olmsted recognized the positive effect of nature, noting how urban trees provided a "<a href="https://loa-shared.s3.amazonaws.com/static/pdf/Olmsted_Trees.pdf" target="_blank">soothing and refreshing sanitary influence</a>." His "sanitary style" of design offered more than mere decoration and ornamentation. "Service must precede art" was his cry.</p>
Olmsted's 1874 plan for the U.S. Capitol grounds in Washington, DC. Architect of the Capitol<p>Olmsted came of age in the mid-19th century, as the public health movement was rapidly developing in response to typhoid, cholera and typhus epidemics in European cities. As managing editor of Putnam's Monthly in New York City, he regularly walked the crowded tenement streets of Lower Manhattan.</p><p>At the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the Civil War, Olmsted led efforts to improve sanitation in Union Army military camps and protect soldiers' health. He initiated policies for selecting proper camp locations, installing drainage and disposing of waste, ventilating tents and preparing food, all designed to reduce disease. And in 1866 he witnessed adoption of New York's <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_Health_Bill" target="_blank">Metropolitan Health Bill</a>, the first city law to control unhealthy housing conditions.</p>
Antidotes to Urban Stress<p>The insights Olmsted gained into connections between space, disease control and public health clearly influenced his landscape architectural career and the design of many urban park systems. For example, his design for the interlinked parks that forms Boston's <a href="https://ramboll.com/-/media/files/rgr/lcl/bgi_final-report_mit_boston_20160403.pdf?la=en" target="_blank">Emerald Necklace</a> foreshadowed the concept of green infrastructure.</p><p>This system centered on stagnant and deteriorated marshes that had became disconnected from the tidal flow of the Charles River as Boston grew. City residents were dumping trash and sewage in the marshes, creating <a href="https://landscapes.northeastern.edu/water-sanitation-and-public-health-in-boston/" target="_blank">fetid dumps that spread waterborne diseases</a>. Olmsted's design reconnected these water systems to improve flow and flush out stagnant zones, while integrating a series of smaller parks along its trailways.</p>
Parks in the Time of COVID-19<p>Today researchers are documenting many health benefits associated with being outside. Spending time in parks and green spaces clearly benefits urban dwellers' <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2007.09.009" target="_blank">psychological, emotional and overall well-being</a>. It <a href="https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph10030913" target="_blank">reduces stress</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916591231001" target="_blank">improves cognitive functioning</a> and is associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s40471-015-0043-7" target="_blank">improved overall health</a>.</p><p>In my view, government agencies should work to make these vital services as widely available as possible, especially during stressful periods like pandemic shutdowns. Certain types of public green spaces, such as botanical gardens, arboretums and wide trails, are well suited to maintaining social distancing rules. Other types where visitors may be likely to cluster, such as beaches and playgrounds, require stricter regulation.</p><p>There are many ways to make parks accessible with appropriate levels of control. One option is stationing agents at entry points to monitor and enforce capacity controls. Park managers can use timed entries and parking area restrictions to limit social crowding, as well as temperature screening and face mask provisions.</p>
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