15 July 2020 - Spending time at the sea has long been associated with providing benefits to our health and wellbeing but in recent years, Oceans and Human Health has developed as an emerging field of research. This week's Oceans of Learning topic focuses on this growing research across a wide range of areas, including the benefits of exercising in the sea and spending time at the seashore, the nutritional benefits of seafood, how seaweed and other marine products can benefit our skin, and how plants and organisms from the ocean can help with the treatment of diseases.
This week's topic – Our Ocean: Our Health and Wellbeing - is part of Oceans of Learning, a 10-week series where the Marine Institute and partners celebrate our world's shared ocean and our connection to the sea, sharing news and offering online activities, videos and downloadable resources on a new marine topic each week.
In the 18th century, doctors began to prescribe a stay by the sea for those who needed a boost for their health. And modern day research shows they were on the right track with their advice to patients.
Dr Easkey Britton is a marine social scientist at NUI Galway whose work explores the relationship between people and the sea. She says, "In the last 10 years, we are just beginning to realise how our engagement with healthy marine and coastal environments, can directly support, enhance and restore our health and wellbeing. We have a lot to benefit from having positive experiences in the sea and by the coast, so we need to ensure the ocean is a safe and healthy space for all."
Through the EU-Horizon 2020 funded project Seas, Oceans and Public Health in Europe (SOPHIE), Dr Britton has worked with other scientists and public health experts to gather existing evidence that the health of seas, oceans and humans and inextricably linked. SOPHIE outlines the required research and collaborations need to inform future policies and practices which will enhance and protect both human health and the health of the oceans.
Spending time at the beach gives a much needed boost of natural sunlight, which can help regulate our sleep and gives us Vitamin D, which is essential for our health. And often people self-report that after spending time at the seashore, they feel their stress levels have reduced. Emerging research is also showing that the ocean can also help people with particular health conditions.
Research found that patients with cystic fibrosis experienced fewer pulmonary flare-ups when they inhaled prescribed hypertonic saline – a strong solution of salt water that mimics what we inhale at the seaside. The research was prompted by the fact that Australian patients with cystic fibrosis told their doctors they could breathe more easily after surfing.
Swimming in sea water is very popular in Ireland and other countries around the globe and people swear by its health benefits. Like other kinds of exercising, swimming releases endorphin chemicals, known for their feel good properties in the body. Sea water is known to have benefits for the skin, particularly because it is rich in magnesium, which can help retain moisture and also soothe some skin conditions. Sea swimming also connects people with nature, which has been shown to have a positive effect on mental health.
Other healthy activities that we can take part in in our ocean include surfing, sailing, sea kayaking, kite surfing and diving. The health benefits of exercising in the ocean or spending time at the seashore form part of the Blue Gym concept. This refers to using the coastal environment specifically to promote health and wellbeing by increasing physical activity, reducing stress levels and building stronger communities.
Our ocean is often viewed as nature's untapped treasure chest, with marine plants and organisms providing a natural source of medicines, food additives and cosmetics. Work undertaken by the National Marine Biodiscovery Laboratory of Ireland (NMBLI) is focusing on marine biodiscovery and isolating and identifying new natural products produced by these discovered marine organisms, using analytical chemistry.
The NMBLI works with national and international researchers and industries to identify novel uses of these natural products for the treatment of diseases, or as bioactive in cosmetic or agri-food products. To accomplish this interdisciplinary research, the Marine Institute has funded several taxonomists, biologists and chemists.
Globally, the deep ocean has already given us compounds to treat cancer, inflammation and nerve damage and it's an area of research that is still developing, with great potential for the future.
Thalassotherapy, which comes from the Greek word for sea, refers to treatments that use seawater and seaweed to help revitalise the body. Seaweed is packed with an unusually high concentration of vitamins and minerals which all pose benefits for the skin. Seaweeds can contain as much as ten times more vitamins and minerals (trace elements) than land plants.
As well as being used for skincare (and in medicines), seaweed is an important source of nutrition for humans, along with a wide range of other seafood.
Fish are a rich source of Omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for healthy brain function, and particularly essential for healthy brain development both in the womb and in early childhood. According to Bord Bia, researchers have found that many brain-related conditions may be prevented or even treated by good intakes of Omega-3 fats, including conditions such as dementia, Alzheimer's disease and depression as well as dyslexia and ADHD in children.
Benefits are seen from eating fish as little as once a week and highlight the importance of following advice to eat fish at least twice a week and to include at least one oil-rich fish.
Notes to Editor
Surfers inspire cystic fibrosis therapy:
Bord Bia: Nutritional Benefits of Fish: