Nature and Health

I am not the first to note that a journey into nature is therapeutic. There are a multitude of references and research papers to explain the health and wellbeing gained from striding in the countryside, how it inspires creative thought, develops a clear head and gives a sense of uplift and energy. There is a ton of research to show that the less green a persons surroundings are the higher their risk of morbidity and mortality.

The range of specific positive health outcomes tied to nature is startling, including depression and anxiety disorder, diabetes, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), various infectious diseases, cancer, healing from surgery, obesity, birth outcomes, cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal complaints, migraines, respiratory disease, and others. see report

More recently – all the way from Japan – the art of Shinrin-yoku, forest bathing is taking off. It apparently started in the 1980’s and involves spending time in ‘woodland bathing’ taking in the atmosphere, and has become key to healing in Japanese Medicine. We have kind of always known this, but now research has proven it to be so. Apparently many trees give of a compound that support our cells that help our immune system, physical activity in the form of a 40 minute walk in the forest was associated with improved mood and feelings of health and robustness. Levels of the stress hormone cortisol decreased in test subjects after a walk in the forest, when compared with a control group of subjects who engaged in walks within a laboratory setting.

In a 2007 study, men taking two hour walks in the woods over a two day period exhibited a 50% increase in levels of natural killer cells—the body’s disease fighting agents. Wow!

Many plants produce compounds and oil collectively known as phytoncides to fight infection from bacteria. Inhalation of these apparently has been shown to have the same effects on our immune and nervous systems. We naturally inhale them when we walk around the woods.

Individuals who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) where their serotonin levels (chemicals that nerve cells produce which affect your mood and anxiety state) are affected by lack of the sun. Being outside even for short periods of time and grabbing any rays one can, helps to trigger the release of serotonin. Interestingly, coming into contact with the soil also releases serotonin , so a bit of gardening helps.

Over the past few hundred years our contact with nature has lessoned for many of us living in urban environments. Urban dwellers only have local parks as their connection with nature. Research has proven, that people with access to nearby natural settings have been found to be healthier overall than other individuals. The longer-term impact proven to also include increased levels of satisfaction with home life, job and with life in general’ [Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989].

Even the healing effects of a natural view, are increasingly being understood in stressful environments such as hospitals and nursing homes. Results – patients spending less time recovering and requiring fewer painkillers for those with a ‘natural’ view. (Ulrich, 1984).

Exposure to nature has also been linked with reduced crime. More green spaces in a community accounted a reduction in crime rates. (Huffington post report ). It could have something to do with the psychological benefits of exposure to nature, which include lower stress levels, reduced depression and anxiety, and even putting the brain into a state of meditation. If individuals enjoy improved physical and psychological health as a result of spending time in nature, they may be more likely to feel connected to their community and less likely to engage in crime’.

In our busy life schedules of the 20th Century self care is critical but often overlooked. We are ever more aware that a healthy mind is as important as a healthy body. Self care of the mind is strong when we are in nature. The sympathetic nervous system (the one that responds to fight or flight) steps back and makes way for our parasympathetic system (the one that likes to relax). It slows down breathing and quietens our minds, encouraging us to be present. We anchor into the present moment, are happy with our surroundings and feel more happy. In addition to producing meaningful increases in calmness and contentment, research also demonstrates that hiking in nature can significantly reduce rumination related to negative, obsessive thoughts.

Without doubt – I have subconsciously, but now very much consciously, ventured out into nature with the aim of improving my mental health. I am able to connect with the real me and somehow it gives me a sense of gratitude and a feeling that all is generally alright, that I am a little cog in this big wheel. I always feel better and the fact that science can back this up – well fabulous.