The Health Benefits of Nature
There is no doubt that nature makes us feel good. We don’t need science to tell us about the health benefits of nature. We can feel that taking a walk to the beach after work and dipping our feet in the currents releases stress and rejuvenates us. Or that a day hike deep into the forest somehow shifts our senses into a heightened state of awareness and energy. The Japanese have a word for this called shinrin-yoku, which means Forest Bathing. The word that represents how immersion in the forest improves happiness and health.
If you’re someone who lives with health challenges, have you never noticed that they seem to improve drastically when you’re in the great outdoors? If you’ve ever wondered why here are just some of the many ways nature changes the brain and body for the better.
Our senses on nature
Increased natural visual stimuli help to increase cognitive focus and wakefulness. The sights, sounds and colours that we perceive in nature are what our brains are wired for. For thousands of years, humans evolved alongside immersion in nature. Humans would have had to have been highly attuned to their environments around them. Since this is what we are built for when we are immersed in natural environments our senses kick into high gear. You may get the feeling heightened state of alertness and increased energy. Certain smells can also have a beneficial effect. Terpenes and other chemicals in natural scents have been shown to provide a host of different benefits, from stress reduction to increased alertness, to improved immune function.
Our senses on city life
Urban life is stressful. Whether you perceive it emotionally as stressful or not, science demonstrates that our biology does. Noise and light pollution are rampant. Think televisions, other screens, beeps and honks, notifications, cars and buses. We rarely experience pure darkness or quiet anymore. Even when we are alone and being quiet there is usually some white noise coming from our electronics. Stepping into nature gives our bodies a break from these taxing stimuli which results in lowered levels of stress markers such as cortisol levels. Stress effects can wreak havoc on many different systems in the body, from hormone function to the immune system, digestion, mental health, hair loss and sleep. With stress being linked to so many functions in the body – if not all, it’s hard to downplay the positive effects of reducing stress through nature immersion.
Shifting from the city also improves air quality. Even if you live in a small town with ‘good air quality’, there will still be some pollutants. Car exhaust, off-gassing from appliances and furnishing, and more. When we step into nature we breathe exceptionally high-quality air which improves our overall health in many ways including (a bit obviously) improved breathing, especially for those with asthma, COPD and other respiratory illnesses.
But improved air quality also support health in many different ways. Fresh air can reduce skin conditions which are aggravated by pollutants. Increases oxygen can also make you feel happier by increasing serotonin levels. It also helps to cleanse the lungs via increased exhalation of toxins. This can also help to reduce blood pressure and heart rate, as when we are exposed to toxins the body has to work harder to expel them which increases heart rate and blood pressure. Even the immune system benefits by increasing the amount of oxygen which helps our white blood cells function properly by fighting and killing bacteria and germs. The list here of health and wellness benefits is really endless.
Increased lux and natural light
Light is increasingly becoming recognized as an important part of a healthy lifestyle. When we’re exposed to sunlight we receive a host of benefits that artificial indoor light cannot provide. This includes increased lux, the units of measurement for light. Indoor light produces anywhere from 500 – 1000 lux, and to a maximum of 5000 lux (although rare). Whereas the outdoor light level is approximately 10000 lux on a clear day. Science demonstrates that lux contribute to our feelings of wakefulness. When we experience the brightness of outdoors it helps our bodies and minds to feel alert in a way that indoor lighting cannot match.
Being outside in natural light also helps to sync our circadian rhythm to that of the sun. This helps us to feel more alter during the day and sleep better at night. No discussion of light could be complete without a mention of Vitamin D. When our skin is exposed to natural sunlight the sebum (oil) on our skin concerts to Vitamin D which we then absorb. This vitamin is critical for our health. After exposing your skin to sunlight it can take up to 72 hours for full absorption. We’re not saying you need to wait 3 days to shower after being in the sun, but maybe hold off on taking a hot soapy shower right after getting some sunlight, as this can wash away the sebum before your body has a chance to absorb adequate amounts of Vitamin D.
Tips for getting the most out of your time in nature
Leave your phone
Leave your phone at home, in the car or turn it on airplane mode to reduce EMF’s, the temptation to check your messages or have notifications take you out of the present moment
Notice your surroundings
Pay attention to the different sights, smells and sounds. The different colours, animal noises, temperatures, smell of the air, types of plants – do you recognize any? This will help to shift you into the present moment and heighten your senses. Has anything changed since you were last here? Learning about your area helps you to feel more connected to place and can help to reduce loneliness, depressions and anxiety.
Being completely immersed in nature is shown to have more benefits than just walking in a park or trail close to the road.
Studies suggest that 120 minutes is the ideal dose to start to see dramatic health and wellness benefits. Longer definitely can’t hurt either!
Touch the earth
Interacting with the microbes of wild landscapes can help to build beneficial bacteria in our bodies. If your feeling extra wild try going barefoot, it can help to strengthen your feet and as well as grounds you to the earth!
There are so many health benefits of nature, too many for us to capture in just one blog post. But if your one of those people who need some scientific motivation to justify a long walk in the forest, now you have it. If you care about your health and wellness, nature is an essential part of that lifestyle. We come from nature as its no surprise that we need it to feel whole, happy and healthy.