‘Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better’.- Albert Einstein
One of the really fascinating breakthroughs in recent years has been the growing understanding of the tremendous mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health benefits of spending time in nature.
For years I have had an intuitive sense that being in nature is good for you, informed not just by my own experiences but those of so many others. For me spending time in nature is simply so restorative and relaxing, a tremendous way to destress after a busy day at work. Moreover I have found the beautiful Mount Congreve gardens close to where I live to be my like a ‘creative laboratory’ providing me with mental clarity, and a sense of peaceful equanimity. Many of my patients benefit as well which led me to begin prescribing a ‘walk in nature’ as a therapeutic form of ‘green’ exercise back in 2017 as a collaboration with Mount Congreve.
Biophilia is the scientific term given for this innate biological need to connect with nature. It comes from the Greek phrase meaning ‘love of life and the living world.’ This innate tendency to react positively to nature comes from your DNA, hardwired into your physiology and is a key driver of your mental, emotional, physical and spiritual vitality.
Let’s face it, a renewed appreciation of nature has never been more important given the reality of global warming. Being immersed in nature for me has to one of the great benefits (albeit not always recognised) of the farming life.
Just think about typical Irish person,
spending about ninety percent of his/her time indoors (with so much of that indoor time spent on screens). On average, spending about seven hours per day on screens (excluding work time), checking their smart phone up to fifteen hundred times a week.
Nature deficit disorder is my term for the adverse health consequences from a life spent indoors away from nature, with more people than ever suffering from negative stress and adverse consequences as a result.
So for me prescribing time in nature, you might call it ‘Vitamin N’ is a really important strategy to consider if you are interested in improving your health and vitality.
So what are the health benefits
Spending time in nature is a key element to psychological, physical emotional, spiritual and overall vitality.
Benefits of Spending Time in Nature
Reduce toxic stress -Lower levels of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
Enhance Recharge from Stress.
Less irritable & worried.
Boost mood & Happiness.
Boost memory, attention span, concentration & creativity.
Slow down to become more present.
Improve Heart Health.
Increases Heart Rate Variability.
Lower Blood Sugar & Improve Metabolism.
Increase Pain Threshold.
Reduce Blood Pressure.
Increase in body’s level of NK natural killer cells which boosts immune system.
Supports more restful sleep.
Boost Energy & Vitality.
Time outdoors in nature quietens the busyness of the monkey mind with its ‘always on’ fifty thousand plus thoughts a day (mainly negative thoughts.) The types of brain waves produced in this state of worry, anxiety and stress are called beta waves.
Spending time in nature changes the type of brain waves emitted to alpha, signaling a more chilled out and calm relaxed state where you can not only recharge from stress but also become more creative and enhance the quality of your thinking. Enter into what’s termed the ‘flow state’ where you can think, feel and be close to your creative best.
As you reduce levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, this becomes a terrific way to reduce feeling of anxiety and negative stress, to quieten your inner critic and inner negative voice which replays all sorts of negative scenarios in your mind.
Giving yourself a ‘brain break’ in this way is a powerful strategy to become calmer, more chilled out and completely present.
Just think for a moment how trees and forests unconditionally give us so much.
From purifying the air and producing oxygen to providing shelter and a safe space to recharge and reconnect.
Now there is a wealth of scientific data supporting their health and healing benefits.
In Japan the term for this is forest-bathing or shinrin-yoku from the Japanese words shinrin meaning forest and yoku means bath. The idea is based on ancient Buddhist and Shinto practices and officially named by Japanese government in 1982.
Shinrin-yoku means cultivating your five senses of seeing, listening, smelling, tasting and touching. By bathing in the essence of the forest and plugging into the natural rhythm of nature, in this way, you can recalibrate your internal sensometer in a way that allows harmony and healing. Up to one in four Japanese people regularly participate in forest bathing with significant documented health benefits from reductions in blood pressure, anxiety and stress hormones to boost in mood, energy and overall vitality.
Power of Phytoncides
Why have forest trees such an impact on overall wellbeing and vitality? The environment around trees is oxygen laden and rich in substances that trees release to help protect them from infestation with viruses, fungi and bacteria. These substances are known as phytoncides and also have a role in enabling trees communicate with each other through a network I call the wood wide web (www).
These phytoncides can also significantly boost the immune system by raising levels of natural killers cells, white blood cells that are part of your healthy immune system.
Spending time in nature can enhance levels of positivity hormones including serotonin (the positivity and happiness hormone), oxytocin (boosts connection, caring, and compassion) and dopamine (boosts motivation).
Research from Finland, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology looked at the emotional and restorative experiences of more than three thousand city dwellers of their time in nature.
Compared to sitting in their car, volunteers did not experience any restorative benefits from walking in urban areas but they did so within fifteen minutes of being in both urban parks and forests. While feelings of restoration and vitality actually dropped in the urban areas, they increased significantly in the green areas such that there was more than a twenty percent difference in terms of how much better participants felt. They felt more positive with stronger positive emotions, more creative and less negative, worried and stressed.
There was also a dose response curve recognised in that the more time spent in nature and the green areas, the greater the benefits. Significant mental health benefits accrue from spending at least five hours a month in nature, which works out at less than forty minutes twice a week.
This has been backed up by research from Korea using functional MRI scanners whereby people who looked at urban images had increased blood flow in the emotional alarm clock (amygdala) of the brain implying higher levels of stress and anxiety. By contrast, those looking at scenes of nature quietened the amygdala while lighting up areas of the brain dealing with positivity and empathy.
New Zealand research found that every one percent increase in the amount of green space within three kilometers of a persons home is associated with a four per cent reduction in prevalence of mood disorders and anxiety.
The net effect of this ‘nature boost’ is that you feel more creative, confident and connected to the world around you.
So take every opportunity to immerse yourself regularly in the natural world. It really is good for your heart, your head and overall health. Try it and see for yourself.
Dr. Mark Rowe- Medical Doctor | TedX Speaker | Author | Vitality Expert | Life Strategy Coach www.drmarkrowe.com