There is something about nature that soothes, relaxes and heals your entire being. Perhaps it’s the combination of oxygen rich air, beautiful visuals, relaxing sounds and the overall positive vibrations that you pick up from the surroundings.
All of this helps your mind let go of its usual worries and helps it become completely present and receptive to the beauty and abundance around it.
Even research now confirms the healing effects of nature right from lowering blood pressure to healing tumors and even cancer. That’s what we are going to look at in this article.
Here are 8 ways spending time in nature heals you, according to research.
1. Being in nature lowers your blood pressure and improves heart health
A study published in the journal of cardiology found that being in nature even for a few hours has a calming effect on the mind and body – lowering blood pressure (both systolic and diastolic) and also reducing the levels of stress hormones like cortisol in the bloodstream. With the reduction in cortisol, the body automatically returns to the parasympathetic mode where healing and restoration take place.
These results are even more profound when a person is consciously interacting with nature like listening to nature sounds (or even silence), or watching a beautiful plant, flower, trees, greenery, streams etc.
Another research done in Japan found that a day trip in the forest significantly reduced blood pressure among other positive health benefits. They also found a reduction in urinary noradrenaline, NT-proBNP and dopamine levels. Both Nonadrenaline and NT-proBNP are known to raise blood pressure.
Most researchers attribute this to the presence of chemical and biological agents in forest atmospheres which interact with the body providing positive health benefits. For example, forest atmospheres are rich in negative ions and bio-chemicals like phytoncides that when inhaled have a healing effect on your body.
2. Being in nature helps reduce stress, anxiety and depression
In a 2015 study researchers found that brains of people who spent an hour walking in nature were calmer as compared to those who spent an hour walking in an urban setting. It was seen that the subgenual prefrontal cortex (sgPFC), which is an area of the brain associated with negative rumination, quiets down when being in nature.
Another research conducted in Korea found that people who merely looked at natural scenes/images for a few minutes showed a marked reduction in activity of a brain region called the ‘Amygdala’ in contrast to people who looked at urban images.
Amygdala is an important part of the brain that plays a major role in processing emotions, mainly fear and anxiety. If you have an overactive amygdala you will have an heightened fear response leading to anxiety related issues. A relaxed amygdala, which happens when in nature, also reduces symptoms of stress and anxiety.
Another study published by the Central Institute of Mental Health links greater exposure to urban environments with an increase in activity in the amygdala. The study links higher instances of anxiety disorders, depression and other negative behaviour in the cities with an overactive amygdala.
All of this is ample proof that being in nature can heal anxiety and depression.
3. Nature heals and restores our brain
Stress causes your brain to be alert at all times, even during sleep! Cortisol, a stress hormone that is released in the bloodstream in response to stress blocks the proper production of melatonin (sleep hormone) and hence you do not get proper sleep. Eventually, this leads to an overworked brain (cognitive fatique) that is in dire need of rest.
Research done by cognitive psychologist David Strayer indicates that being in nature helps lower activity in the prefrontal cortex (which is the brain’s command center) and helps this region relax and restore itself.
Strayer also found that people who spent long hours in nature showed lower levels of theta (4-8hz) and alpha (8 -12hz) brain activity suggesting that their brains had rested.
According to Strayer, “The opportunity to balance all that technology with time spent in nature, unplugged from digital devices, has the potential to rest and restore our brains, improve our productivity, reduce our stress levels and make us feel better.”
A well rested brain is obviously more creative, better at problem solving and has improve short term and working memory.
4. Nature helps strengthen immunity
A study done by Japanese researchers suggests that when we breathe in phytoncides (which is an invisible chemical that some plants and trees emit), it helps lower blood pressure, reduces cortisol and improves your immunity.
The study found a marked increase in the number and activity of natural killer cells (by more than 50%!) and even anti-cancer proteins for subjects exposed to forest environments for more than a few hours. The study also found that the results lasted for over 7 days after the exposure!
Natural killer cells (or NK cells) play an important role in fighting off infections and also act against tumor cells in the body.
Some studies also suggest that forest atmospheres are rich in plant-derived essential oils, beneficial bacteria and negative charged ions that can help improve your gut health as well as aid anti-tumor and anti-cancer activities in the body.
In fact, in Japan, there is a tradition known as shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” where people are encouraged to spend time in nature to improve their health and to quicken healing.
Also Read: The Healing Power of a Smile
5. Nature helps prevent onset of diabetics and obesity
A study conducted by Dr. Qing Li and six other researchers from the Nippon Medical School found that, walking in nature for around 4 to 6 hours can help in the increased production of Adiponectin and dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEA-S) in the adrenal Cortex.
Adiponectin is a protein hormone that has a range of health promoting functions in the body including regulating glucose levels and fatty acid breakdown.
A low level of adiponectin has been linked to obesity, diabetics, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, depression and ADHD in adults.
This proves that taking a walk in nature can help significant boost up your metabolism protecting you from a range of health ailments including diabetics and obesity.
6. Nature inspired awe can heal PTSD and other mental health issues
According to a study conducted by Craig L. Anderson (UC Berkeley, psychology, PhD candidate), feelings of awe, those generated while being in nature (also known as nature inspired awe), for example, looking an ancient redwood tree or a beautiful waterfall, had a profoundly healing effect on the mind and body.
Anderson also found that nature inspired awe can have a healing effect on those suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). According to Anderson, when you feel awe, the usual brain activity reduces while allowing for the expression of other positive emotions.
According to Pauf Piff (professor of Psychology at UC Irvine) “Awe is the perception of something so physically or conceptually vast that it transcends your view of the world and you need to find ways to accommodate it.”
From the spiritual perspective, one can conclude that experiencing awe also brings you completely in the present moment, so you become free from the usual chitter chatter of the brain. Instead, you become fully present and mindful and hence healing ensues.
7. Nature helps quicker recovery from psychological stress
Researchers at Stockholm University in Sweden found that subjects exposed to sounds of nature showed quicker recovery from psychological stress as compared to those exposed to urban noises.
8. Being in nature helps reduce inflammation
Inflammation in the body can lead to various health issues including cardiovascular diseases as well as hypertension. A study published in the journal of cardiology found that a few hours of walking in nature significant brought down the levels of serum IL-6 which is a pro-inflammatory cytokine in the body. Hence being in nature can also heal inflammation.
These are just some ways nature heals your mind and body based on existing research. There are definitely many more ways that are yet to be studied. When was the last time you spent time in nature? If it has been long, make it a priority to pay a visit to nature, to rest and rejuvenate in her lap. It will definitely be worth every moment.