College of Health and Human Performance

It's in Her Nature

A passion for nature leads HEB researcher to explore its positive effect on curbing risky alcohol and substance use

It's in Her Nature

pictured: Shahar Almog, health education & behavior Ph.D. student

by Manny Rea

Mother nature’s simplest forms of greenery may be enough to help curb problematic drinking risks. One of the latest nature studies from the Department of Health Education and Behavior (HEB) explores just how greenspaces could be a tool in treatment for limiting alcohol and substance use harms.

Shahar Almog, an HEB Ph.D. student, remembers there being something unique about the exercise class she used to lead back in Israel. Mothers would bring their babies in strollers to the park to participate together, and while the mother-child connection was part of it, the added natural element is what made these sessions so special for Almog and her participants, she said. Fast forward 15 years, and Almog is working to complete her Ph.D. by researching how nature can affect mental health, alcohol and substance use.

Almog chose to study the relationship between nature and alcohol use because of a gap in knowledge on the effects of the outdoors on people with substance use disorders. Impulsive decision making and negative affect, or the swath of negative emotions such as anxiety and depression, can be risk factors for problematic drinking. Ultimately, this behavior can lead to injury and even death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, excessive alcohol use contributed to more than 140,000 deaths in the U.S. between 2015 and 2019.

The immediate dangers of this behavior prompted Almog to explore a solution as a first-time primary author of the article, “Spending Time in Nature Serves as a Protective Factor against Problematic Alcohol Use: A Structural Equation Modeling Approach.”

Recruiting more than 300 participants from a crowdsourcing survey site, Almog set out to capture responses from a study sample representative of the drinking trends in the U.S. She developed two structural equation models (SEM) to find associations between exposure to nature and alcohol consumption as well as alcohol-related problems. Using SEMs allowed for Almog to consider differences between time deliberately spent in nature and passive exposure to neighborhood greenness as well as the demographics of her participants which may all have played a role in forming the answers they gave to the survey.

Almog would find in her survey results that general alcohol consumption is related to both positive or negative moods. In other words, feeling good or bad were both related to increased drinking. However, problematic drinking, which can lead to injury, forgetfulness or other harmful consequences, was only associated with negative mood. Lastly, nature was found to be related to improved mood. She concluded that intentionally spending time in nature may reduce problematic alcohol use by first reducing negative affect.

Almog saw that participants often reported feeling that they took nature for granted. This emphasized the research team’s belief that access to greenspaces and education efforts on the benefits of deliberate interaction with nature could be essential to turning around the negative experiences and consequences for people who drink.

The study provided the statistical evidence. Next is to apply it. Almog, along with Meredith Berry, Ph.D., assistant professor in HEB, and several other researchers in the department, are engaging a new wave of participants with online visuals of nature versus the built environment. People who regularly use substances are being shown images of the two settings for several minutes as the researchers ask them questions to gauge their decision-making processes specifically related to their substance use habits.

Almog hopes to move the experiment to the outdoors where participants can experience all the senses that contribute to the impact she believes nature holds on people. But even beyond its effects on substance use and related behaviors, Almog encourages everyone to be more mindful of the living world around them.

“Nature can directly affect your attention and mood,” she said. “It can also indirectly make you more active, social and can move you away from environmental stressors like noise or air pollution. Spend some time keeping the phone away and just notice nature. Enjoy it.”