It’s no surprise that nature has healing properties. But how, and to what extent? Health researchers and psychologists are constantly learning about the effect that nature can have on our physical and mental well-being, and there has been enough evidence that some doctors are now prescribing “nature” as a therapy. Just two hours a week (roughly 17 minutes a day) of outdoor time is enough to experience benefits. So, let’s take a look at why, no matter the season, you want to spend more time outdoors.
How Nature Works to Boost Our Health
Evolutionary scientists say we are hardwired to live in conjunction with nature, and the further we drift from this (due to industrialization and our modern technological lifestyles), the less healthy we will be.
But what exactly is it about nature that makes it so good for us? Take a look at these five areas of research that are helping us to understand just that.
1. Sunshine on our skin
While too much sun can be dangerous, too little is just as harmful. Soaking in some sunshine is essential to good health. When sun rays hit our skin, our body produces vitamin D. Vitamin D aids in maintaining the immune system, keeping bones healthy, and optimizing cardiovascular function.
In addition, sunlight boosts serotonin, “the feel good hormone”, which improves everything from mood to digestion to sleep.
2. Music to our ears
Anthrophone — better known as “noise pollution” — is the man-made soundscape we create and are exposed to every day. The sounds of vehicles, machines, electronic hums, speakers blaring, people shouting, etc. are constant in most modern environments. What we are learning is that our brains often interpret this noise as danger, triggering a stress reaction. As a nation, we are chronically overstressed. Noise pollution is a contributing factor that often goes unnoticed.
But there is a certain type of quiet that can only be found in the midst of nature. Whether surrounded by trees or next to a babbling brook, research is showing us that the soothing sounds of nature can calm the brain’s stress response and relax our entire physical body. Since we evolved with nature, we instinctively feel safer and more at ease in nature than when surrounded by “foreign” noise.
3. Bacteria in the soil
Soil is a thriving ecosystem, full of microscopic life. Billions of bacteria and fungi can exist in a single spoonful of soil. So why might it be healthy for you to get your hands dirty? Scientists know of at least one good reason: Mycobacterium vaccae. This bacteria found in soil has been studied with great success for its role in decreasing depression, boosting the brain, decreasing inflammation, and protecting against stress.
4. Phytoncides in the air
Trees and other plants naturally emit airborne chemicals, called phytoncides, that help protect them from insects and decay. The antibacterial and antifungal properties of phytoncides benefit not only the plant itself, but also the people who breathe them in. Studies have repeatedly shown that as we inhale these phytoncides, it strengthens our immune cells. Specifically, it causes our bodies to increase the number and activity of NK (natural killer) cells — important because these white blood cells are the body’s first line of defense against viral infections and tumors. In one study, three days spent in a forest resulted in an immune system boost that lasted over 30 days! But if camping overnight in the woods doesn’t thrill you, feel free to dial it back. Your immune system will still benefit from a leisurely walk in the woods. Just take some deep breaths and let the phytoncides work their magic.
5. Electricity around us
Negative ions are molecules in the air that are charged with electricity. In nature, they are formed in large quantities when air molecules break apart due to the force of moving water (like waterfalls, ocean waves, or rivers), sunlight, air movement, radiation, or plants.
If you’ve ever stood next to a waterfall, you may have appreciated how clean and energizing the air felt. And indeed, breathing in this “electric air” has benefits. Negative ions purify the air by attaching to dust, mold spores, viruses, and bacteria and removing them from the air. Negative ions increase oxygen to the brain, improving mental health and productivity. They increase serotonin, which improves mood and can have a significant impact on depression. They can help to improve sleep, reduce stress, and boost immune function. In general, negative ions are a big positive for your health.
The Biggest Impacts Nature Can Have on Health
So now that we know some of the mechanisms behind the health-promoting properties of nature, what are the measurable effects on our everyday and long-term health?
Physical benefits of spending time outdoors
In addition to lowered blood pressure, reduced inflammation, and more energy, physical benefits of being in nature include:
- Improved vision: Being outside in natural sunlight and having to focus on objects in the distance are both key in giving eyes the workout they need to stay healthy and reverse issues caused by too much screen time.
- Faster recovery: When recovering from illness or surgery, a person’s environment impacts their healing. Hospital patients who spend time outdoors require fewer painkillers and have shorter hospital stays. When it’s not possible to spend time in a forest, park, or garden, just having plants in the room or a view of nature make a positive difference in the quality and speed of recovery.
Mental benefits of spending time outdoors
Mental benefits of being in nature include the following:
- Recharges your brain: Getting out in nature is a solution to mental fatigue (trouble thinking or focusing, especially after doing something that uses a lot of mental energy). It brings about increased clarity, concentration, and creativity. It also increases short-term memory performance.
- Improves mood: The increased serotonin and decreased cortisol levels that result from being outdoors make us happier and better able to manage mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. In general, feelings and effects of stress are diminished by being in nature.
Doctor’s Orders: Get Outdoors!
Here at In and Out Express Care, in addition to urgent care services, we provide primary care for individuals and families. While our doctors have yet to write a prescription for forest bathing, we support and routinely encourage our patients and their families to get outside: breathe in the fresh air, soak in the sunshine (wearing sunscreen of course!), and routinely engage in safe outdoor physical activities. The benefits to your health are astounding!