Michael Mosley recommends rainy day activity to stave off the winter blues

The UK is no stranger to a rainy day, with the autumn and winter months seeing higher chances of rainfall.

While many people are inclined to shelter from the rain inside, science suggests it may be a better idea to step outside.

Speaking on his BBC Sounds podcast Just One Thing, Dr Michael Mosley shared the benefits of rain.

As well as releasing compounds that positively impact the brain and body, he said rain “cleanses the air of harmful pollutants, so going out when it’s raining or shortly after can deliver fresher air to your lungs”.

He added: “You also get that gorgeous fresh rain smell – so how about embracing the rain.”

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A recent Japanese study found that rain improves air quality. There was a 20 percent reduction in the most harmful fine air particles that cause lung damage after rain.

And the smell after it rains is known as petrichor. Dr Mosley explained: “The main component of petrichor is a chemical called geosmin, which is made by bacteria released into the air when rainwater hits the ground.

“Inhaling geosmin can be good for us. In a recent Korean study researchers asked 30 adults to either handle soil that contained geosmin or soil that didn’t. After just five minutes of exposure to geosmin, the volunteers had higher levels of the mood boosting chemical serotonin in their blood, and their alpha brainwave activity increased, a sign of relaxation.

“They also had decreased levels of C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation.”

According to Dr Mosley, not only does rain improve air quality and release geosmin, it also ionises the air, adding a negative charge to air molecules.

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There have long been claims about the health benefits of negative ions, which Dr Mosley said he’s been sceptical of.

But appearing on the podcast, Professor Michal Terman, from Columbia University in New York – one of the pioneers doing work into clinical trials on the mood-boosting benefits of negative ions – offered an explanation as to why negative ions are beneficial.

He said: “[Negative ions] can be created artificially or through various acts of nature. Intense rainfall creates a physical disturbance that releases free electrons into the atmosphere and they attach to oxygen molecules – that’s a negative ion.”

Speaking about his first clinical trial, Professor Terman said: “We were studying light therapy for winter depression. We were searching for a placebo control for light therapy. Light therapy now is the international standard for the treatment of winter depression – these are major depressive disorders. But, it was always speculated from the start that it was just a placebo effect.

“So I needed a placebo control. We knew that there was a long folk history about negative air ions being mood lifters. Also we assigned randomised groups to bright light therapy or negative air ion therapy, fully believing that that was a placebo and would prove the effectiveness of light, which we went one step further – ion flow out of a conventional air purifier is very low.

So we souped-up the ionisation in one group, this gives us now three groups – bright light therapy, high density negative air ionisation and low density. Subjects couldn’t tell the difference between high and low density ions. We thought both of those would be placebos. Turned out otherwise.

The ones who received the room air purifier method showed a slight improvement, and that’s what we would call a placebo effect, a belief that this would work, but not enough to call it a remission. The research subjects who received the high density ions gradually improved over about three weeks.

The level of improvement was comparable to what you would see either with bright light or with an active antidepressant after six weeks. With negative air ions we saw a gradual improvement over three weeks and it is side effects free.”

Professor Terman continued: “We screened patients who had what we call chronic depression – this is a very serious syndrome where there’s literally no relief from a depressed mood for years at a time. It is very hard to treat with medication or psychotherapy and yet we were able to get statistically a lifting of mood in these various serious cases.

“It works for the average person as well. A student of mine conducted a controlled experiment with college students who are not screened for depression. Some had bluer moods than others. Within half an hour of exposure to the high density air ionisation they were feeling better. So it works for the average person as well.”

Can you get the same effect after a heavy rainfall, Dr Mosley asked. Professor Terman answered: “The dose is very similar.”

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