There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence focused on what health benefits can be gained by getting back to nature. But there’s also a growing wave of scientific research aiming to explain why.
Being in Nature Feels Good – But Why?
Have you ever questioned why being close to nature has such a restorative effect? Why a few days at the beach or among the trees can help dissipate stress and anxiety, and leave you feeling genuinely healthier and happier?
There’s little question about what happens. But in an attempt to provide a better explanation than fairy dust and magic, researchers are turning to science to understand why.
It’s not just new-age natural therapy advocates – senior researchers from notable institutions across the world are working to understand both the psychological and physiological benefits of being outside and in natural environments.
So, what do we already know?
There are some obvious and well documented links, both direct and indirect. It makes sense that being outdoors encourages a greater level of physical activity, which is obviously a prevention and remedy for a whole range of ailments.
Cleaner air is another obvious one. As well as a reduction in air pollution the further you travel from urban environments, plants utilise carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, producing oxygen as a by-product.
The conversion process also consumes all the carbon atoms to create glucose, thus being a natural carbon sequestration process.
‘So trees are good for our lungs and the planet, as well as quelling some of our climate change concerns, which are a major contributor to anxiety.’
In addition, plants – especially trees – are highly effective at removing particulate matter, or tiny particles of organic chemicals, acids, metals, and dust that are emitted from burning fossil fuels.
This fine particulate matter can be inhaled and lead to lung and heart issues, a range of cancers and various other serious illnesses. Estimates indicate that globally, nearly 9 million people die each year due to exposure to fine particulate matter.
So there’s no doubt that being surrounded by greenery allows for more breaths of fresh air.
Can plants kill off diseases?
More recently, Japanese researchers have discovered that plants emit small amounts of chemical compounds called phytoncides, which when inhaled, trigger the creation of ‘natural killer’ cells.
These are a type of white blood cell that boost the immune system and are particularly good at targeting infection and destroying rogue cancer cells.
It seems that the greater the number of plants around us at one time the better, as we are exposed to more phytoncides. Dr Qing Li, a professor at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School, found that walking through or spending the night in the forest resulted in noticeable changes to blood composition, as well as a marked decrease in blood pressure.
Water Baby Wellbeing
Proximity to water is also attributed to significant positive health outcomes.
‘Psychologists have long advocated access to the ocean as a major benefit for mental wellbeing. One aspect is being able to see unhindered to the horizon, which is regarded as a good remedy for anxiety in some people and a catalyst for greater creativity.’
Being at the beach on a sunny day is also beneficial. US clinical psychologist Dr Richard Shuster says the blue colour of the water and sky helps create feelings of calm and peace. Dr Shuster says this is because blue changes the frequency of our brain waves, invoking a mild meditative state. The sound of moving water, such as that caused by the ebb and flow of waves or a fast-flowing stream, has also been found to contribute to similar outcomes.
Significant research has been carried out into the benefits of inhaling something called ‘negative air ions’. These are air molecules that contain an additional electron and are created, among other ways, by the action of water droplets and air molecules colliding, which occurs where waves break or around waterfalls.
‘Negative ionisation’ has been touted for more than a century as a major health benefit, although the science has taken some time to catch up.
As it turns out, inhaling them appears to stimulate the production of serotonin, or the body’s natural happy drug. Serotonin can alleviate depression, help relieve stress and boost our daytime energy.
What’s more, plants also produce small amounts of negative air ions as part of their normal growth cycle, using some to assist in the filtration of the particulate matter described above, as well as emitting them into the surrounding atmosphere for us to breathe.
The Benefits of Outdoor Exercise
A 2018 Harvard Medical School article cites research comparing the impact on the brain of exercising in urban and natural environments.
‘Researchers discovered that people who did nature walks rather than urban ones showed lower activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This region is active when a person is having repetitive thoughts focused on negative emotions. It’s overactive in people suffering from depression.’
According to Dr Jason Strauss, head of geriatric psychiatry at the Harvard-affiliated Cambridge Health Alliance, nature walks can be particularly effective for aging males, who are at higher risk from mood disorders as they get older.
Dr Strauss said aspects of nature such as calming sounds or apparent silence, are shown to reduce blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, thus suppressing the body’s fight-or-flight response.
So how much time are we talking here?
Numerous studies have found that a minimum of two hours a week in nature is the magic number required to trigger multiple health benefits – and the more time, the better.
In his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, author and nature advocate Richard Louv described the impact of ‘nature deficit disorder’ and the importance of children’s and adults’ exposure to nature for their health.
Louv explains nature deficit disorder as a combination of the disappearance of open spaces for children and adults to play, increased traffic, over-protective parenting, less appreciation of the natural world in education, and the increase in time spent in front of screens.
While Louv never intended the term to be a medical diagnosis, countless research has ensued since the book’s release that’s led to calls for – and in many cases resulted in – the introduction of formal education programs involving nature play and study, as well as growth in nature-based therapies to assist in the treatment of physical and mental illness.
The good news is that these things are increasingly being embraced across once resistant mainstream areas of education and medicine.
Whatever the case, the research points to an obvious need to get outdoors and enjoy as much time as possible interacting with nature. So what are you waiting for? Go hug that tree!
Feature photo by @brookearoundtown