The rejuvenating impact of nature on our health and well-being

 

The rejuvenating impact of nature on our health and well-being

 

We human beings are part of nature and we interact consistently and constantly with it on so many levels and in so many ways, from our tiniest molecules to our larger biological, mental, emotional and spiritual systems.  We have an inbuilt sense that this interaction is deeply beneficial to us, especially with the growing prevalence of depression caused by “nature deprivation”, which is due largely, to the increasing amount of time we spend in front of screens; our TVs, phones, pads, computers. Of course, we innately know that being in nature relaxes and refreshes us and we find nature deeply healing – however is there more to it?  Could there in fact be a more profound rejuvenating effect of simply ‘being’ in nature? Something which revitalises us and could contribute profoundly, simply and realistically to halting, reversing, and even curing chronic diseases and conditions which we associate with being ‘just a natural part of the ageing process’?

There’s a great deal of research already on the impact that nature has on our health and well-being, and in fact it is an exponentially growing field – with further research coming out month by month. The research shows that being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, reduces anger, fear, and stress and increases pleasant feelings and our overall sense of connection and well-being. Exposure to nature not only makes us feel better on an emotional level, it also contributes to our physical health, it reduces blood pressure, improves our heart rate, relieves muscle tension and regulates the production of stress hormones.  (If you read my column on a regular basis you will know that stress hormones (including cortisol) underlie chronic inflammation – which is responsible for a constellation of conditions including certain cancers, cardiac and circulatory problems, arthritis, type II diabetes, and even neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.)

Our need, as human beings, for a connection to nature is so profound that being in nature may even reduce mortality.  Research undertaken in hospitals, offices and schools has found that even a simple plant in a room can have a significant impact on stress and anxiety.

What you are seeing, hearing and experiencing at any moment is changing not only your mood but how your nervous, endocrine and immune systems are working moment by moment. We understand innately that the stress of an unpleasant environment can cause us to feel anxious, sad or even helpless. Happily, a pleasing environment reverses all of that.

Nature soothes us, it helps us cope with pain and it is believed that because we are genetically programmed to find trees, plants, water and other nature elements engrossing, we are fascinated by nature scenes and distracted from pain and discomfort. This was very well demonstrated in the classic study of patients who had undergone gallbladder surgery; half of the patients had a view of trees from the hospital bed and half had a view of a brick wall. The doctor who conducted the study, Robert Ulrich, stated that the patients with the view of the trees tolerated pain better, had fewer negative effects from the surgery, and spent less time in hospital. More recent studies have shown similar results even with scenes from nature such as pictures or paintings and simple interventions like putting plants in hospital rooms.

One of the most intriguing areas of current research is the impact that nature has on our general well-being. In one study in the journal ‘Mind’ 95% of the people interviewed reported that their mood improved after spending time outside and that they felt less depressed, stressed and anxious and became more calm and balanced. Time in nature or scenes of nature are associated with a positive mood and psychological well-being, ‘meaningfulness’ and vitality.

Time in nature viewing nature scenes is akin to a Zen exercise – it increases our ability to pay attention because we humans are hardwired to find nature inherently interesting - we can naturally focus on what we are experiencing out in nature and this provides respite for our overactive minds and this refreshes and readies us for new tasks.

One of the most profoundly important and relevant factors in remaining young and healthy into our advancing years is sociability – our connection with others. In fact, it is estimated that having good social connections with others can add approximately 10 healthy years to lifespan. Field studies conducted by Kuo and Coley at the Human-Environment Research lab indicates the time spent in nature connects us to each other and the larger world. Another study at the University of Illinois suggests that residents in Chicago public housing who had trees and green space around the building, reported knowing more people, having stronger feelings of unity with neighbours and were more concerned with helping and supporting each other.  They also reported having stronger feelings of ‘belonging’ than tenants in buildings without trees. In addition to this greater sense of community they had a reduced risk of street crime, lower levels of violence and aggression between domestic partners, and better capacity to cope with life’s demands - especially the stresses of living in poverty.

This experience of ‘connection’ may be explained by studies that used fMRI to measure brain activity. When participants viewed nature scenes, the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love lit up, but when they viewed urban scenes, the part of the brain associated with fear and anxiety were activated. It appears as though nature inspires feelings that connect us to each other and our environment. Conversely, nature deprivation or a lack of time in the natural world (largely due to hours spent in front of a TV or computer screen) has been associated with depression and more worryingly with a lack of empathy and altruism. Time in front of a screen has been associated in studies with a higher risk of death – even among people who exercise. Back in 1984, the renowned biologist Edward O. Wilson coined the term ‘biophilia’ which refers to the idea that humans are innately connected to nature. Wilson believed physically we are, like all life forms, chemically related to Earth and the Earth is ‘hardwired’ into our bio-chemistry. In fact, it has been discovered that the bacterial organisms in the Earth are intrinsically related to our propensity to develop chronic inflammation and to brain and emotional health. When disconnected from the earth and thus from these bacteria, we become profoundly sick.

 

Top tips for connecting with nature

Get outside – as we noted earlier nature reduces our anger, fear and depression and increases our positive mood and psychological well-being. This not only increases our happiness it makes us feel better physically.

Time in nature also brings us ‘out of ourselves’ and our narrow concerns and connects us to the larger world where we find beauty and interest. Thus, the environment is connected not only to our physical emotional and spiritual health but to purpose and community. So it is imperative to get outside! If you can get out to the countryside that’s great – however if you live in an urban environment, make an effort to find a park or a green space with trees and bushes. Just get out during your lunch hour to get a breath of fresh air and give your mind a break - you will find that you have much more energy for your afternoon mental tasks.

Go green with your exercise - exercise improves attention in the young and cognitive functioning in the old. Exercising outdoors reduces stress and enhances mood much more than exercise indoors.   In a study published in ‘Mind’ one group of participants walked in an area with woods, grasslands and lakes and the other in a shopping mall.  The outdoor group had less depression and anger, tension and overall better mood than the indoor group. A series of fascinating studies in Japan showed that walking in forests as opposed to urban environments lowered blood pressure and stress hormones well beyond the time of the walk. So, go somewhere with trees, bushes, wild grasses or flowers, water and other such natural elements and go for a walk or run or bike. Additionally, nurturing a garden is another wonderful way to be active outside and deeply connect with nature.

Bring nature indoors - there are lots of ways to bring small doses of nature into your home to influence your mood, performance and overall well-being:

Get some plants: Plants reduce the amount of airborne pollutants and research done in the 70s and 80s by NASA demonstrated the air-cleansing powers of plants in the Skylab, biospheres and homes. Adding a few plants to your décor boosts well-being on so many levels and in fact, a fascinating study undertaken in nursing homes showed that people who had a plant to look after did better on every measure of health because they had something to care for.

 Harness the power of aromatherapy: Nature is full of wonderful plant aromas, these not only make our environment pleasant but they are also full of chemicals that enhance our thinking, mood, immune system and much more. In fact, increasing numbers of scientists are looking at the therapeutic effect of different plant oils on various health conditions. Two examples supported by research or peppermint oil which enhances attention and lessons mental and physical fatigue, and lavender oil which calms us. Try diffusing a few drops of these oils or other oils at home to enhance your mood.

Open the curtains: Letting in natural light increases job satisfaction enhances performance, reduces depression and enhances recovery. One interesting study compared the use of pain medications in patients who were on the bright and dim side of a hospital. Those on the bright side received less stress and less pain and took fewer analgesics.

Add nature scenes: If you don’t have a view of nature from your window at home or work you can still benefit from a landscape painting or photo. Find one that you like. Intriguingly, you might prefer a view of an open landscape (rather than a forest), as some researchers hypothesise that this is more beneficial to us and less stressful and makes us feel more comfortable because we can see that there are no predators hiding.

Pet Power: there is a large body of research which shows the benefits of pet ownership including; lower blood pressure, improved depression and anxiety and a built-in exercise program. You can begin by simply allowing yourself time to watch the birds and other wild animals in your garden or a nearby park. And you can benefit further by connecting deeply to animals by contributing to the welfare of wild creatures around the world by helping to protect the biological diversity that our ecosystems need.

Finally, try this animal meditation: when you are overwhelmed by a personal problem spend some time with a pet – if you don’t have a pet why not borrow one, or become a pet sitter? Try breathing in rhythm with your animal. For half an hour do nothing but be with your animal. If your mind starts wandering and worrying about your difficulties gently return to your breathing. After 30 minutes, note your mental state.

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