I’m a nature lover. Always have been. I’ve been camping, hiking, and soaking in the wonders of nature since I was about five years old. I know it in my bones that nature is good for you. But, when I started seeing news stories about doctors prescribing time in nature to patients, even I was surprised. Turns out, natural health isn’t just about taking vitamins and eating veggies or your apple-a-day. It also includes spending time outdoors communing with nature. Nature is good for our health, both physically and mentally.
If you’re thinking that sounds a little woo-woo, I get it. It does sound intangible. What exactly does it mean to say nature’s good for our health? Does it just mean we feel good afterward? Can’t any activity we enjoy make us feel better?
The answer is yes and no. Yes, we may feel better doing things we enjoy. But, pleasurable activities like watching a great movie, going shopping, or eating out at our favorite restaurant don’t give us the same health benefits that being in nature can. Studies are showing that being in nature produces some pretty remarkable health benefits that far exceed simply feeling good.
Natural Health Benefits of Being in Nature
A recent study by the University of East Anglia looked at evidence from over 140 studies, with results gathered from over 290 million people. They arrived at the following conclusions:
- Spending time in, or living close to, nature areas and greenspaces “reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, and preterm birth, and increases sleep duration.”
- “People living closer to nature also had reduced diastolic blood pressure, heart rate and stress.”
- “Exposure to greenspace significantly reduces people’s levels of salivary cortisol — a physiological marker of stress.”
Another recent study from the University of Exeter suggests there is an optimal amount of time we should spend in nature each week. It drew data from nearly 20,000 people living in England. The sample represented a variety of age groups, gender, occupations, socioeconomic groups, and ethnicities. It also included people with disabilities and long term illnesses. Here’s what they found:
“People who spend at least 120 minutes in nature a week are significantly more likely to report good health and higher psychological wellbeing than those who don’t visit nature at all during an average week. However, no such benefits were found for people who visited natural settings such as town parks, woodlands, country parks and beaches for less than 120 minutes a week.”
So, it seems the magic number is 120 minutes. Interestingly, they found it doesn’t matter if that 120 minutes occurs all at once or is spread out in smaller intervals throughout the week. That means, just one afternoon of natural health in the park can give you all you need for the week.
The Natural Health Phenomenon of Forest Bathing
Ever heard of Shinrin-Yoku, or forest bathing? (Also referred to as nature therapy in some research literature.) This Japanese tradition developed in the 1980’s and is now being widely practiced in parts of Asia. It’s recently made its way into the United States as well, with more and more people discovering and embracing the practice. Shinrin-yoku involves walking in a forest, or a nature area with lots of trees, and mindfully experiencing it with your senses.
Personally, I’ve always referred to this as hiking. But, there’s specific intention put into the forest bathing practice that can set it apart from some kinds of hiking. For one, it takes place in a setting with many trees; whereas hiking can take place in all terrains. It also involves a more relaxed pace with an intention to engage with nature in a mindful, meditative way.
The Shinrin-yoku organization reports an impressive catalog of benefits. These include immune system improvement, an increase in the body’s natural killer cells, lowered blood pressure, improved concentration (including for children with ADHD), improved mood, and faster recovery from surgery or illness, among others.
An independent review of findings from 64 studies on Shinrin-Yoku and Nature Therapy came to the following conclusion. “Nature therapy as a health-promotion method and potential universal health model is implicated for the reduction of reported modern-day “stress-state” and “technostress.””
Natural Health for Techno Stress
That term, technostress, got me thinking. I find it both sad and completely natural that humans should find ourselves seeking time in nature as some sort of medicine. More and more, our lives circle around technology. Whether we’re working on our computers, watching TV, playing on our phones, or driving in cars that keep us separate from the outdoors, most of our life activities don’t require us to be in nature.
But, we are a part of nature. And for the vast majority of our existence on this planet, we’ve been intimately connected to it. As women, our monthly cycles are tied to the moon’s waxing and waning. All of us, men and women, are guided by circadian rhythms that control our sleep and eating patterns. Environmental cues, such as sunlight and temperature, impact these rhythms. Lack of sunlight in the fall and winter months can cause seasonal affective disorder, producing symptoms of depression.
Nature is intricately tied to our health. Could it be the widespread stress and stress-related illnesses people are experiencing has something to do with our increasing disconnection from nature? Given all this research, it certainly seems this is a possibility we should be taking seriously.
Are We Missing Out on Healthy Exchanges with Nature’s Life Forms?
Like the larger natural system around us, we have a robust microbiome within us. However, with increasing urbanization and sterile lifestyles, the natural healthy diversity of our gut microbial ecosystem is suffering. This study from the Frontiers in Microbiology journal dives into this shift and offers these words of caution:
“The study of environmental influences on gut microbiota structure and function is especially pertinent because the human living environment is becoming rapidly urbanized. Such drastic changes to the human environment may interrupt the healthy development of the microbiota and increase risk of inflammatory diseases.”
One of the really interesting phenomenons being looked at in connection with nature therapy is the effect that phytoncides (chemicals released by evergreen trees) might have on our immune system. It appears being exposed to them when walking among the trees improves our immune system’s functioning. Talk about natural health! It makes me wonder. What other healthy exchanges with nature’s life forms are we missing out on by removing ourselves from the natural environment?
Natural Mental Health
Stanford University reports some surprising statistics regarding how nature can impact our mental health. According to their research, “city dwellers have a 20 percent higher risk of anxiety disorders and a 40 percent higher risk of mood disorders as compared to people in rural areas. People born and raised in cities are twice as likely to develop schizophrenia.” Their study “found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to participants who walked in a high-traffic urban setting, showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression.”
Harvard University reports similar findings, stating “Research in a growing scientific field called ecotherapy has shown a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression.”
The bottom line is, we NEED time in nature to be our best, healthiest selves. And doctors are starting to acknowledge this by prescribing nature to their patients.
Natural Health in the Form of Nature Prescriptions
There’s a global health trend emerging in the form of nature prescriptions. Doctors in Scotland and the United States are now recommending time in nature for preventing and alleviating a variety of ailments. Dr. Qing Li, the physician in Japan who introduced the world to forest bathing, has been prescribing it for 25 years, leading the way for this therapy to become a widely used practice in Japan and other parts of Asia. The Global Wellness Summit for 2019 reports nature prescriptions are a growing trend. They foresee this intervention expanding into hospital settings in the future as well.
It seems odd that something so simple, something that isn’t a pill or a medical procedure, should be prescribed by doctors. And yet, it’s also understandable. When we spend so much of our lives indoors, engaging with technology and attempting to keep our environments as germ-free as we can, it’s no wonder we might lose sight of the value of nature.
Of course, we don’t need a prescription from a doctor to reap all the natural health benefits nature has to offer. We just need to realize how important it really is to our health and well-being and get outside more. Make it a priority to venture out into the wild spaces or a nearby park on a regular basis.
That’s me, last weekend, forest bathing with the maples, oaks, and cedars in the Texas hill country. It was the best Saturday I’ve had in a LONG time. I felt more grounded, more at peace, and more connected to my spirit than any indoor practice can give me. In fact, almost a week later, I’m still feeling the natural high from it.
Nature’s healing power can’t really be quantified. It’s so immersive, so transformative. When we try to break it into bits of measurable data, I think we lose the forest for the trees (pun intended!) There’s a holistic process that unfolds out there. Nature touches every part of us – the physical, mental, energetic, and spiritual.
It tells us we’re okay. We’re home. And that’s a medicine that can’t be bottled or tested.