The healing ability of nature has been revered by traditional cultures for thousands of years. Now, modern scientific and academic studies are proving the health benefits nature provides.
I wrote the below article for Nurture Parenting Magazine Issue 21, 2018 to explain the science behind the benefits of being in nature.
A natural antidote to anxiety
Until our second child was born, I had never experienced anxiety. A combination of medical issues, others expectations, and pressure I put on myself to create a different lifestyle for our family brought a stress that I hadn't felt before. The anxiety turned me in to a parent I didn’t want to be - snappy and short-tempered and not the calm fun-loving parent I was with our first child.
And I am not alone. Every year one in seven Australians experiences anxiety.
Intuitively I knew I needed to spend more time in nature to restore my inner peace.
For thousands of years traditional cultures have understood the emotional, psychological, spiritual and healing benefits of nature. What’s exciting now is that academic and scientific studies are proving these benefits of spending time in nature.
Our current relationship with nature
These studies comes at a time when we are becoming more disconnected from nature.
The World Play Shortage Report published earlier this year found that over 1 in 3 Australian parents haven’t taken their children to a park in the past year. In America a Nature Conservancy poll found that only around 10 per cent of teenagers spend time outdoors each day. Statistics for adults are even worse, with the Harvard School of Public Health finding that adults spend less than 5 per cent of their time outdoors. These findings are largely focused on time outside, so the dwindling amount of time spent in natural outdoor environments is even more alarming.
Ironically, we are becoming and raising a generation that is disconnected from the natural environment, even though we are becoming more aware of the importance of it to our health.
The health benefits of time in nature
The term ‘forest bathing’ or shinrin-yoku was first coined by he Japanese Government in the early 1980s. Since then Japan has conducted 48 studies and invested over $4 million of research in it.
Dr Qing Li from Nippon Medical School has spent over a decade researching forest therapy and has found evidence that a trip to the woods increases natural killer cells and anti-cancer proteins. Natural killer cells fight disease. They react quickly to cells infected with a virus and to tumour formation, and are an indicator of immune system and overall health.They’re also a good indicator of mental health, as anxiety is found to suppress immune system function.
A decade ago Dr Li found a 50 per cent increase in natural killer cell levels in men taking a two hour walk in the forest. That’s incredible! A 50 per cent boost to the immune system by taking a gentle stroll in nature.
This increase in natural killer cell activity lasted the week following a visit to the woods, and the health benefits continued for a month his subsequent studies showed.
So I know you’re probably thinking of course, we already know exercise improves our health. But nature walks are more beneficial to our health than walks in an urban environment.
The heart rate, blood pressure and levels of key stress-related hormone, cortisol, were measured in people taking a 15 minute walk in a city compared to those doing the walk in a natural environment. The Chiba University study led by Yoshifumi Miyazaki found a 16 per cent drop in cortisol, 4 per cent drop in heart rate, and 2 per cent decrease in blood pressure, all of which are a direct result of the environment.
Another study also found a 7 per cent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity following a casual forest walk compared to a similar urban walk.
The sympathetic nervous system is what governs our fight-or-flight response and involves the release of glucose and the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol in to the blood stream. However the parasympathetic nervous system relaxes the body and is related to improved memory, sleep, immune function, digestion and growth hormone. We also need our parasympathetic system to be working effectively to feel pleasure.
Our creativity also benefits from time in nature. David Strayer from the University of Utah found that people performed 50 per cent better at creative problem solving after nature immersion. This was attributed to them being in a more relaxed mental state.
It’s not just the wilderness that is providing these benefits either.
The University of Exeter Medical School in England analysed information from 100,000 people who live in the city and mapped where they had lived for the previous 18 years. They found the people who lived close to a nature space reported less stress.
A lower prevalence of 15 diseases in people who lived within 800m of green space was also reported by Dutch researchers. These diseases include anxiety, depression, migraines, heart disease, diabetes and asthma. For children, these benefits are also linked to increased resilience and interest in learning, improved self-esteem and ability to engage socially, and a growing sense of autonomy and identity.
Health information from over 30,000 Canadians was also mapped and found that those who lived on blocks with more trees showed a boost in metabolic and heart health.
Remarkably, its not just being in nature that provides these benefits. Another study found that after only 20 minutes of looking at nature cortisol levels were 13.4 per cent lower than people viewing urban scenery. This is great news for those of you thinking, I just don’t have time for nature immersion programs.
That’s just a sample of the many studies that are proving what traditional cultures have always known about the importance of our habitat to our wellbeing.
But what is about nature that has this healing effect?
This research astounded me despite intuitively knowing nature’s healing effects. But I couldn’t help wonder what reasoning science provided for these benefits.
Remember Dr Li from Nippon Medical School? He found that the healing effects of nature are due to phytoncides - which are essential oils found in plants. The oils protect them from germs and pests, and are directly related to improved immune system function. The amount of the oils in the air is magnified in damp environments, which means that the deep breath of fresh air you take in when you’re in the rainforest has just as much of a healing effect as it feels it does.
So aromatherapy is one reason.
Another reason is the sense of awe nature evokes - whether that be from a sweeping landscape of rolling hills, the view from a mountain top or the delight of a blooming bud. A 2014 study of 1000 people suggests that this is because people who perceive nature as being beautiful are predisposed to being happier. Yet another study suggests that people who are likely to experience a sense of awe when in nature experience improved health as they feel they are part of something greater, and are less focused on themselves.
Being around nature also provides our brain a rest from overstimulation. Wallace Nichols explains that this is because both audio and visual stimulation is simplified in nature compared to in the city where the brain has to process millions of pieces of information every second. When we sit and watch waves rolling in off the ocean, or swim underwater, our brain gets a break, because although it’s still working. there’s less information to process.
This approach also explains why the ocean, as well as woodlands, help us slip in to a more relaxed state. Studies have further extrapolated on this to find that wild spaces have greater benefits than managed parks or gardens on our mental health for these same reasons.
Mindfulness is gaining mainstream recognition for the bevy of benefits it provides. When in nature all five senses can be engaged, or even just one can be focused on, such as the sound of birds, insects, and wind in the leaves. This provides the ideal environment for meditation and mindfulness and is yet another theory as to why we reap so many benefits being in the natural world.
Remember Yoshifumi Miyazaki from Chiba University? He suggests that we benefit so much from the wilderness because we evolved there. We are designed to read information from landscapes, plants and animals, rather than the screens, technology and cities we have surrounded ourselves with.
Then of course there are the simple intuitive explanations such as being in nature provides a break from the pressures of urban life - screens, social media and others expectations - and allows us to relax and be ourselves.
That’s just a sample of the studies and scientific evidence that show how beneficial nature is to our health.
Recommendations to reap the benefits
To gain the health and wellbeing benefits nature offers, the prescription is simple, spend time in nature.
Dr Li’s study found that a weekly forest visit provided health benefits and these lasted for the following month. So schedule a bush wander in a day a week if you can. Professor Kalevi Korpela from University of Tampere suggests a 45 minute walk is enough to ward off conditions such as anxiety and depression.
Similarly, Professor Liisa Tyryainen from the Natural Resources Institute Finland recommends spending five hours in nature per month to improve health. Whatever works for you, whether that is scheduling regular time in nature, or getting there whenever you have a spare hour or two has been shown to be enough to calm the sympathetic nervous system.
The Japanese approach to shinrin-yoku encourages relaxation, rather than intense exercising. Breathing deeply, engaging the senses, and enjoying the presence of nature, and maybe some friends is enough to improve health, so don’t fear if you’re not a regular hiker.
Forest therapy guides suggest participants deliberately engage with nature using all five senses. They recommend walks are done partly in silence, mobile phones are not taken, and quiet sit spots are used to observe the surrounding environment. On your next walk you might like to pick a sense to focus on, whether it be the roughness of sandpaper fig leaves, the smooth dimples of ghost gum bark, the graininess of the soil and the delicateness of a petal, or the varying smells of the phytoncides that have been proved to be so beneficial.
Given that just looking at scenes of nature can provide health benefits, you can continue to improve your health from your home by working in a garden, playing nature sounds, looking at naturescapes, reading books about nature and journalling your experiences.
There are numerous activities that people can undertake in just an hour a week, whether in nature or in the home to improve their health.
When I reflected on what changes had caused my anxiety, I realised they were due in part to my routine falling apart, and therefore our time in nature happening on a more sporadic basis. Now I have reinstated weekly nature days and am returning to my true self, and all of our health and wellbeing is on the mend.