Mind-Body Nature

The Gifts of Nature

            “We all know how good being in nature can make us feel. We have known it for millennia. The sounds of the forest, the scent of the trees, the sunlight playing through the leaves, the fresh, clean air – these things give us a sense of comfort. They ease our stress and worry, help us to relax and think more clearly. Being in nature can restore our mood, give us back our energy and vitality, refresh and rejuvenate us.”

            The above quote is from the first paragraph of the book, “Forest Bathing – A Retreat To Nature Can Boost Immunity And Mood.” by Dr. Qing Li.  Not to worry, the book is not about getting soaped up in a forest.  Rather, the book is an exploration of what science has confirmed about the healing value of being in natural surroundings. Even in small doses, the combination of healthful benefits can be remarkable.  The scientifically validated benefits include:

  • Improved immunity
  • Decreased risk of heart attack
  • More energy and better sleep
  • Mood-boosting effects
  • Decreased anxiety and fatigue
  • Lower blood pressure and heart rate
  • Decreased inflammation.

Numerous studies have demonstrated therapeutic effects from contact with nature.  These effects are stimulated by the proximity of natural sights, sounds, smells, taste, and the subtler influences of negative ions, increased oxygenation and plant compounds called phytoncides that act as chemical messengers.

For many, exposure to plant phytoncides has been shown to be more effective than antidepressants for lifting mood.  A study at Vanderbilt Medical Center demonstrated the value of phytoncides in a hospital environment where people were exposed to diffused essential oils containing phytoncides from trees (without actually being in a natural setting.) The result was a remarkable reduction in stress.

In America today, most live or work in an urban area.  Often, it’s a bland concrete and asphalt jungle that’s missing the therapeutic value of natural surroundings.  Some maintain a limited connection with indoor plants, yard activities or occasional trips to a park. Many more have almost no connection with nature.

Should you be one that has lost their connection with nature, the thought of a walk in the park may only conjure up expectations of a hot, sweaty, and bug-ridden outing.  For others that have lost their connection with nature, the thought of camping in the rough may seem the opposite of healing, perhaps even seem dangerous.  Granted, air-conditioning and the many comforts of a sanitized world have an appeal.  The problem is when the many comforts don’t provide deep relaxation, inner peace, and spiritual awakening.

With over 50% of people living in crowded urban areas with minimal green spaces, it’s no wonder that many suffer from a natural surrounding deficit.  Compounding the problem, many spend 90 percent of their time indoors, where air pollutants can be 2 times to 5 times higher than outdoors.  The absence of indoor natural lighting adds to the problem.  Too much in our daily view is white, gray or black without enough of the relaxing greens and blues. So, what’s a city dweller to do?  Quite simply, find ways to get outdoors and back to more natural surroundings.  Just getting outside adds the benefit of fresher air and natural light.  As a bonus, people that exercise outdoors are more likely to stick with it.

Most cities have a park system that affords opportunities for some contact with nature.  Among the more famous city parks are Central Park in New York, Bois de Boulogne in Paris and Hyde Park in London.  Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape designer for New York’s Central Park observed: “enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system.”  In other words, parks are very nice places to relax and restore our spirit.

Certainly, the idea that nature has healing benefits is not new. Some 2500 years ago, Hippocrates wrote, “Illnesses do not come upon us out of the blue. They are developed from the small daily sins against nature.  When enough sins have accumulated, illnesses will suddenly appear.”  Today, the prevalence of anxiety and stress disorders is a reminder that separating ourselves from nature has consequences.  While Hippocrates is often referred to as the “Father of Modern Medicine,” it’s clear that he could have been more accurately called “ The Father of Modern Lifestyle Medicine.”

While I’ve always lived in large cities, I’ve never lived far from a park or city greenspace.  In that regard, luck has been with me.  When returning to Huntsville years ago, my family settled into a house near Aldridge Creek that in later years was blessed with access to a new greenway.  Since then, my daily walks surround me in nature and when enough daylight remains, bath my eyes with relaxing blues and greens.  It’s a walk that allows my mind to rest in a space supportive of mindfulness and revitalization.  While our human bond with nature is in many ways a mystery, it’s no mystery that it’s good medicine.

If not persuaded that you have a need for contact with nature then consider requesting the book “Forest Bathing – How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness” by Dr. Qing Li from the local library.  For the nature skeptic, his book makes a compelling case for reconnecting with nature that is supported by numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies.  For the book lover, expect a treat.  The book is filled with beautiful photos of forest that make each page a reminder of nature’s gift.

There is no shortage of studies supporting the value of natural surroundings for health.  In the article, “How Trees Calm Us Down”,  Alex Hutchinson recounts a classic study where patients recovering from surgery given rooms overlooking a small stand of trees were discharged a day sooner than those in otherwise identical rooms whose windows faced a wall.

Researchers analyzing data from city dwellers found that those living near green spaces reported less mental distress, even after adjusting for income, marital status, and employment.  Dutch researchers found a lower incidence of 15 diseases—including depression, anxiety, and migraines in people living within a half mile of green spaces.  For more about these and other research studies read, ”Is Nature Your Brain’s Miracle Medicine?

While the science is compelling, no theory fully explains the effect nature has on our well being.  Perhaps you will venture out more often because a study says it’s good for you.  Personally, I do it because it keeps me at my best.

            In a busy life, finding time to reconnect with nature can be challenging.  If that describes your situation, then look for an opportunity to walk outdoors.  A short walk while nibbling lunch or a walk around the neighborhood at the end of the day can be restorative.  Almost any contact with nature builds your reserves and, a little can go a long way.  For an extra boost to your reserves consider a Saturday morning walk around the lake.  Hope you join me.

            Nancy Neighbors, MD


What to Do When Natural Surroundings Are Scarce?

Even if there isn’t a stick of grass within a mile you can improve your connection with nature by simply getting outdoors and bathing your eyes in the blue of the distant sky.  An advantage of being outdoors is that you will more likely continue an outdoor activity than a comparable indoor activity.  And remember, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing.

  • Partner with friend or groups to stay committed to outdoor time.  Family Nature Clubs are one of many possibilities.  Hundreds of clubs promote every imaginable outdoor activity.  If really pressed for an idea then climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. From stories in the news of late, you might think it’s the best new outdoor sport.  Personally, I’ll take a pass.
  • Enjoy the local parks and botanical gardens.
  • Take a vacation to a location that offers a healing environment.  This could be an inexpensive weekend camping trip or a trip to the ocean.  For an alternative, hire a guide trained in nature therapy to help you unplug from the daily grind, slow down, and get in touch with your inner needs.  These specialized guides can open the door to amazing experiences.
  • You don’t have to live in a forest.  A little extra exposure to natural surroundings goes a long way.  If nature deprived, try visiting a city park for a couple of hours once a week.  Simple activities like viewing flowers by the roadside, walking by a pond or ordinary yard work can boost feelings of renewal.

By Nancy Neighbors, MD

... Dr. Neighbors provides a blend of traditional family medicine and evidence-based lifestyle medicine in Huntsville, Alabama. When indicated, lifestyle change is recommended as the first line of therapy.

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