Waimangu Volcanic Valley Sarah Emery
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The Science Behind How Nature is Beneficial to Our Health & Well Being

I believe we can all agree, there’s a lot is going on in the world right now. 2020 is proving to be a rollercoaster of unforeseen, free-falling inverted dips. Matched with mach speeds that blast us into tunnels of uncertainty. While these monumental and historical events continue to unfold (and give us an intense emotional whiplash with every News Update report). There’s no doubt, we can all benefit from a relaxing, serene and rejuvenating break.

This is where nature can be our lifeline. Being in nature, improves our health such as reducing anxiety, stress, and help manage cardiovascular disease and mental health.

How have we managed anxiety ridden events in the past?

During uncertain times, past studies have shown. In order to suppress anxiety, people have obsessively watch the news, and overthink social media posts. For some, this can lead them to engage with a total stranger on such platforms, in countless attempts to change a stranger’s opinion from a post or comment. This stress and rumination only leads to unhappiness as well as negative effects on the body and to one’s well being. Causing further issues to those around us.

Our bodies and brains need calmness to sooth our uneasiness. We also need healthy outlets to manage our stress in order to regain our strength, relax and replenish our health.

All photos by me, unless otherwise given credit.

Shinjuku Gyoen Garden Japanese
Tokyo, Japan

I guess I’m a little weird. I like to talk to trees and animals. That’s okay though; I have more fun than most people.” ― Bob Ross.

Science is Finding More Health Benefits to Spending Time in Nature.

So much so, Health Insurance are getting involved.

With the advancement of neuroscience, psychology, immunology and biology. Scientists and researchers have found profound positive effects nature has on the brain and body. For instance, immunologists and biologists are studying chemical compounds that are release into the air by plants. When breathed in, these compounds triggers the body’s ability to produce more NK cells. These NK cells (aka natural killer cells) fight cancer cells, infection, and stress.

Other research has found decreased blood pressure, improved immune systems, inflammation relief, mood improvement, and a decreased need for prescription medication. It’s these types of medical studies that have caught the attention of insurance companies.

Now a days, it’s becoming more common for doctors to write a patient a prescription for nature to help with both physical and mental health. These prescriptions are provide patients with the optimal amount of time in nature, what to be mindful of during their outings, and where they can find green spaces that are close in proximity.

Many self-improvers and the DIY’ers are also folding in nature practices into their daily lives. Such as the nature pyramid, forest bathing, and earthing or grounding practices. As well hacking their body’s reward behavior system (turning a habit into a craving) that enforces a healthy lifestyles.

In an article by National Geographic, Lisa Nisbet, a psychology professor at Canada’s Trent University stated,

“People underestimate the happiness effect” of being outdoors, Nisbet says. “We don’t think of it as a way to increase happiness. We think other things will, like shopping or TV. We evolved in nature. It’s strange we’d be so disconnected.

So why aren’t more people taking advantage?

Photo by Helena Lopes from Pexels

Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.” E. O. Wilson

Are We the Indoor Generation?

We’ve come a long way from our Stone Age lifestyles. In today’s environment we’ve designed our modern lifestyles to have many advantages and conveniences. About 54% of the global population live in urban environments, and it is predicted to increase to 68% by 2050.

Obviously, the current global pandemic has our Stay At Home / Shelter in Place status to be much more sedentary than we prefer (or could ever imagine). Which is more reason to get into nature (it’s also social distancing friendly).

According to the EPA (the United States Environmental Protection Agency) and The National Human Activity Pattern Survey. On average, Americans spend a little over 90% of their lives indoors. Two decades ago a study published in Nature magazine, reported a similar percentage spent indoors. That study was before smartphones.

Before the Stay At Home/ Shelter in Place restrictions, our daily routines are on an indoor lifestyle loop. Naturally, we start and end at home. During the day, our time dedicated to school or work (or both). Afterwards, we engage in another indoor activity (gym, movie, a bar, mall, or restaurant). And we spend a good amount of time sitting inside a car in traffic.

When we go from one monochromatic building to another. We take in artificial light, noise & air pollution and gobs of time looking at screens (tv, computer, phones, tablets). It’s no wonder, when we get back home we want to feel relaxed. Which, sometimes can be gazing at more screens (tv or cellphone) that contributes to stress and anxiety (watching the news, social media, the FOMO).

Hence, we are not breaking away from artificial and synthetic environments and experiences. What a weird digital loop we put ourselves in.

In the Gallup 2018 Global Emotions Report researchers interviewed 154,000 people in more than 145 countries to give account on their positive and negative daily experiences. The report found American’s stress levels to be higher than the overall world average.

By being an indoor generation. We aren’t doing ourselves any favors to our mental and physical health. There are a number of health risks such as myopia, respiratory issues and vitamin D deficiency which is linked to allergies, diabetes, heart disease and depression.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” Rachel Carlson

Speedy Recovery With A Window

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), an educated and scientific nurse a.k.a The Lady with the Lamp. Is considered one of the first nursing theorists (Environmental Theory). Among many of her notable accomplishments. She changed the path of medical science. She is recognized as being the first to comprehend the methods of new science of statistics and use them for both military and civilian hospitals.

Based on her work during the 1853 Crimean War. Nightingale and her team observed the different recovery rate and results of patients who are near a window verses those who didn’t have a window. She reported in her Notes on Nursing, patients should have access to sunlight and fresh air (with of course, food, water, and medicine).

Fast forward 120 + years. Dr Roger Ulrich, PhD. published his scientific study View through a Window May Influence Recovery from Surgery in the journal Science in 1984. It echoed similar observations that Nightingale had written in her nursing notes over a century ago.

Back in 1972-1981, Ulrich studied the recovery of 46 patients from gallbladder surgery. The patients were placed in a room with a window that either had a view of trees or a view of a brick wall. The differences in recovery between the tree view and the wall view were measured in length of stay and pain medication use.

It was noted by nurses that the brick wall view patient’s emotions and needs were described as “upset and crying’, and ”needs much encouragement”. A polar opposite from the tree view patient’s notes, of ”moving well” and ”in good spirits”.

This study evolved Ulrich to look at healthcare buildings from an architecture and design point of view to include natural elements. And because of Ulrich’s gall bladder research, many other researchers tested similar studies, which all yielded the same results. Which in turn, created a stronger movement of environmental design being more involved with healing environments.

Rottnest Island Views
Rottnest Island, Australia

What is Our Connection to Nature?

Our biology is bound to nature.

Obviously, we respond positively to nature. Our lungs need oxygen and our sleep cycles respond to nature’s circadian rhythm of night and day. Our bodies are molecular compositions bound to nature. Much like fresh water and nutritional food, we need natural sunlight and clean air.

The most widely accepted theory, of why we are connected to nature. Comes from naturalist, biologist, writer, and a Professor at Harvard University, Edward O. Wilson. His theory of biophilia suggest humans are genetically predisposition to have an innate attraction to nature and living things. It’s the millions of years of evolution, is what bonds us to other living organisms.

Wilson’s theory has caused ripples effects. It has led other researchers to search for the human connection in nature. Specifically, scientists are looking at the brain’s activity when humans are engaging within nature.

How Nature Scientifically Affects Our Bodies?

Science is measuring the data and the results are in.

Nature’s aerosoles has science’s attention.

Researchers have been studying certain aerosols from plants and trees and the effects on the body. In addition to emitting oxygen, plants also release phytoncides. Qing Li, an immunologist at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School and his colleagues have studied the body’s ability to increase natural killer immune cells in the body’s innate immune system when breathing in phytoncides.

Natural killer (NK) cells terminate affected cells and prevent them from spreading. By doing so, they relieve stress and help fight infection and cancer. This discovery has immunologists in Japan practicing a new therapeutic nature practiced called shinrin yoku aka forest bathing (more on this below).

Although there’s much anecdotal evidence on the aroma affects on human behavior and physiology. Essential oils have shown to decrease depression, anxiety, stress, and blood pressure.

Ecopsychology

One part ecologist and one part psychologist.

Ecopsychology is a different therapeutic approach to conventional psychology. The treatments are focused on connecting nature with patients who are prone to depression, mental illnesses, violence, and anxiety.

One of the beliefs of ecopsychology is that one can improve their personal relationship and emotional well being by having an interpersonal connection with nature.

Ecopsychology was coined by Dr. Theodore Roszak, a psychologist and ecology practitioner. One of his eight principles of ecopsychology is,

The goal of ecopsychology is to awaken the inherent sense of environmental reciprocity that lies within the ecological unconscious. Other therapies seek to heal the alienation between person and person, person and family, person, and society. Ecopsychology seeks to heal the more fundamental alienation between the recently created urban psyche and the age-old natural environment.

Environmental Epidemiology

The study of a large scale population data for public health data.

These studies are looking at communities that live close to green spaces and their interaction with nature. In a most recent study conducted by Dr. Mathew White of the European Centre for Environment & Human Health at the University of Exeter. Results found that time spent in natural environments or local parks, were more likely to report on their good health versus those who don’t.

Which has led to policy decisions of the importance to include green spaces when spatial planning policy.

Our Nervous System in Nature

More particularly, the body’s sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system and response.

The sympathetic system a.k.a. our flight, fight, or freeze system. Kicks on when we are triggered by a threatening stimulus and it is turned off when the threat is eliminated. The opposing system is the rest and digest side, which is the parasympathetic system. It takes over when the body feels at ease and can conserve energy.

In today’s environment, we have daily stresses in our lives (finances, (un)employment, kids, relationships, mortgages, bills, etc). Combined with additional stressors (eg. the notification ping of a work email-text-call, or FOMO) this type of continuous stress, can have sympathetic system never turning off.

By not turning off, these ongoing physiological stresses are the villains that are affecting our other systems such as; immune reproductive, digestive, and our mental well being.

In an experiment with over 400 people. Volunteers literally sat their bums down either in an urban environment or natural environment. Those who sat in nature had increased their parasympathetic system by 55%, their cortisol (stress hormone) levels decreased by 12% and their sympathetic activity decreased by 7% in comparison to those who sat in urban environments.

Son Tra Peninsula view Da Nang Vietnam
Da Nang, Vietnam

Nature is cheaper than therapy.” Unknown

Practices Being Done in Nature

Forest Bathing

Also known as Shinrin-yoku 森林浴 (literal translation is ‘forest bath’), forest bathing is a Japanese practice of intentionally bathing in nature to receive its’ therapeutic benefits. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries coined Shinrin-yoku in 1982. Unlike taking your clothes off for a bath in a tub. You keep clothed while bathing in nature, allowing all of your senses to take in nature.

When doing so, researchers have seen decreased salivary cortisol (stress hormone) concentration, decreased blood pressure, and increased immune functions (natural killer T cells as previously mentioned).

This nature bathing is largely spreading. The US. Association of Nature and Forest Therapy is increasing the awareness and informing the public of the benefits of forest bathing. The association is encouraging for many to participate in guided programs, where trained guides take you through the process of forest bathing.

Grounding or Earthing

A new therapeutic technique has many studies in beta testing mode of earthing, also known as grounding. By connecting with the Earth’s electrons, research of earthing techniques have seen improved sleep, reduced inflammation, recalibrated sleep cycles, and reduced stress in testing volunteers.

How do we do this? By walking barefoot on the Earth. By physically connecting our bodies to the Earth’s electrons we can neutralize the free radicals in our bodies.

The Sense of Awe

If you can’t be in awe of Mother Nature, there’s something wrong with you.” Alex Trebek

Experiencing a sense of awe in nature is generally a new type of research. The definition of awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your meaning of the world. It can make us feel that we are a part of something larger and where we can feel being pulled out of ourselves.

This experience can internally transform the sense of oneself into a wider broader more extensive lens. It’s the idea of a grander vision that extends much further than our own reach and how our impact may not be immediate, but is used for later when it will have a much greater impact.

Nature Pyramid

Similar to the food pyramid that provides guidance on nutritional food groups one should be eating daily. The Nature Pyramid, a concept by Tanya Denckla-Cobb and Timothy Beatley a Professor at the University of Virginia provides guidance on how often one should engage with diverse natural environments for a healthy lifestyle.

Unlike the food pyramid, which is a daily guide. The nature pyramid promotes daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly time periods. What’s fantastic about the nature pyramid, is the range of nature experiences that can be had within a community, one’s backyard to more secluded and remote areas. Such has a National or State parks that can provide more of an intense and immersion experience in nature.

Sequoia National Forest, California

Our forests are literally the lungs for the planet.” Unknown

Time in Nature

What is the time measurement?

An article published by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, advocates getting 2 hours a week in nature to be the magic number to receive the health benefits. Research done on 20,000 people in June 2019, found those who spend 120 minutes a week, reported better health and psychological well-being than those who didn’t.

If one were to use the Nature Pyramid to break down 2 hours a week. It could be 10 minutes a day (M-F) and split into two, 35 minutes for each weekend day (Sat & Sun), or an 1hr and 10 minutes for one weekend day.

This is a vast percentage improvement of 33% (of waking hours) dedicated time spent outside. Verses the 7.6% from the NHAP study

Kek Lok Tong Cave Temple
Ipoh, Malaysia

For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realize that, in order to survive, he must protect it.” Jacques-Yves Cousteau

Doctors Prescribing Nature

Imagine being asked, ‘how much time do you spend in nature?’ by your doctor during a routine check up. Or getting a copay for hiking shoes? What about a copay for a guided outdoor experience or having access to programs that provide free admission to national parks for a year.

Doctors are prescribing nature to their patients; children, teenagers, and adults. Nature prescriptions are being written for an assigned dosage, of what to be mindful of during nature time, where to go and for what type of activity. These specific instructions and guides are teamed up with a park mapping tool App. Parks RX app where doctors and patients can look up parks that are in the vicinity. Over time the prescription gets refined, from a mindful walk to engaging in more activity such as jogging or running and length of time.

Alongside prescriptions, programs are being set up by the National Park Services and Health Insurance Companies such as, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Kaiser Permanente and Aetna.

They are all heavily invested in the nature-prescription initiatives and starting up programs that fields the needs of those who don’t have the means to visit nature. Clinics and organizations are collaborating with each other to provide transport and guides that will host people into nature.

Sequoia Sarah Emery
Sequoia National Forest, California

Forming a Craving into Habit

Yes, we are still talking science.

Why do we do the things we do?

For many of us, the thought of logging hours on any exercise machine in a gym. Is as stimulating and joyless as watching paint dry. Matched with a less of a desire to pay gym memberships and have to wait for a machine that someone is taking their +70th selfie on. It is enough motivation to forgo the gym altogether and pick up a bowl of ice cream instead. Ice cream: 1pt Gym: 0pt.

This type of association and connection, is our reward-based behavior system. When we experience activities, people, places and things. Our brain’s circuitry assigns them value and reward. When we workout, the reward is felt after the workout (the release endorphins). Unfortunately, this feeling is not felt immediately when walking into the gym.

Furthermore our reward system is categorized into 2 sections; our liking and wanting (craving) systems. Short rewards (ice-cream = happy) are mostly associated with our wanting/craving system. Long term rewards (exercising = losing weight) is our liking system. What’s interesting, is our brain doesn’t fuse the two systems, because our liking system is not dependant on the hormone dopamine, unlike our wanting system is.

So knowing how our hormones and our brain’s liking and wanting systems operate. One would wonder, is there a way to hack the system, and what’s the benefit of doing so?

I rigged my own brain.

I had no idea that I inadvertently hacked my brain’s reward system.

Full transparency: I wasn’t always a nature enthusiast. Although, I had a strong childhood foundation of being in nature. It wasn’t until my high school years leading into my late twenties that I didn’t make being in nature a priority.

Growing up my parents took me and my siblings on hikes, camping trips and week vacations at the beach. Even our neighborhood was nature friendly. We had easy access to wooded paths, where friends and I would spend hours exploring the little critters in the creeks and we would ride our bicycles along the wooded paths. We would also play soccer and capture the flag games.

It wasn’t until my thirties that I reverted to my childhood nature days. I somehow found myself hiking again and preferring to exercise in nature. I also became very aware of how sluggish and anxious I felt, when I spent days away from nature.

Subsequently, I developed cravings for the instantaneous feelings of happiness, relaxation, and energy that I experienced when I stepped into nature. It was this instant gratification that incentivised me to stay longer in nature and explore.

How to hack our brain’s reward system.

Awareness is the greatest agent for change.” Eckhart Tolle

Since the liking and wanting systems have an oil and water type relationship. How can we fuse them? The answer is, add an emulsifier. Create a self-insight association that updates the reward system.

This self-insight association will connect our brain’s circuitry between the liking system and wanting/craving system (remember, they aren’t linked because our liking system doesn’t rely on the dopamine hormone). These are the emulsifiers; mindfulness and self-awareness.

This method is easier than activating (or trying) will power. For me, it’s easier to turn away from snacking on chips because they don’t make me feel great or full like an avocado and tomato would. Also, I tend to breakout in the type of acne that causing post hyperpigmentation that lasts a month afterwards. It’s all about association and lack of reward.

There’s a lot to say about being self-aware, being in the moment, and taking notes of how we feel. And when we do, we update our systems in order to change our decisions and form habits. Also, by being aware of how you feel when in the absence of something. Is also updating our reward system with new information.

Fuse Exercise Routines with a Natural Setting.

Studies have shown those who exercise in natural environments vs. indoor settings have a better sense of feeling revitalization, having more energy, and decreases in tension, depression, anxiety, and stress.

It’s also a great way to protect and prevent brain deterioration (dementia, Alzheimer’s disease).

Photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels

What Will You Do Today in Nature?

Nature is free, inclusive, a place of no judgment, and requires no skills or special equipment. It’s easy to enjoy and share with others.

If you’re not a nature enthusiast. My best advice is team up with someone who is and ask to join them on a walk.

During the walk ask them:

  • What is it about nature they enjoy?
  • Where are their favorite nature areas and why is it their favorite?
  • What are other nature areas on their bucket list and why?

After the walk, ask yourself how you felt during the walk and afterwards 🙂

Outdoor enthusiast thriving in the expatriate traveling lifestyle. Looking to connect with your sense of adventure.

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