Nature is fundamental to our health. If you’ve been spending more time outside this summer you may have noticed a change in the way you’ve been feeling. Those long, warm days welcome us outdoors, and back into the environment where we belong. Biophilia, from the Greek meaning, ‘love of life and the living world’, has been used to describe the concept that humans have a biological need to connect with nature. And those bright eyes and radiant skin reflected back in the mirror tell an undeniable tale: our health improves when we are in nature and suffers when we are separated from it.
Studies show the average Australian now spends over 90% of their time indoors, as we migrate to the artificial environments of our offices, classrooms, transport facilities, shopping centres and homes. Although protected from the harsh elements of nature while inside these spaces, so too are we excluded from experiencing its inherent benefits. With the scales tipping so unfavourably towards more time spent inside and in front of digital media, making a conscious effort to meet our biological need to be outside is essential to our health and wellbeing.
Our biological rhythms are the rhythms of nature. Our sleep and wake cycle is aligned with the movement of the sun. Historically, women’s menstrual cycles were aligned with the waxing and waning of the moon.
We are having more trouble sleeping than ever before and women’s health is affected by an array of reproductive health issues. The less time we spend in nature, the further from our natural rhythms we become. We are out of sync with nature and losing the language we need to speak with mother nature, and with that we our losing our health.
Age old wisdom
Indigenous communities have a reciprocal relationship with Mother Nature, knowing each relies on the other to survive. Connections with the land occur at a deep, spiritual level, demonstrating immense respect for the forces and power of nature.
In Japan, walking or bathing in the forest or Shinrin-yoku is both a spiritual and sensory experience, where all of the senses are invited to take part. Evidence from studies of people who participate in shinrin-yoku show us that this experience reduces blood pressure, lowers stress, improves cardiovascular and metabolic health, lowers blood sugar levels, improves concentration and memory, reduces depression, improves pain thresholds, improves energy, boosts the immune system, protects against cancers and helps us lose weight.
The Science of Nature Therapy
Exactly how and why we experience such overwhelmingly positive health benefits from simple exposures to nature is still in the early stages of research. We know that trees release phytoncides, wood essential oils, which are antimicrobial, volatile organic compounds that we breathe in as we walk. But there is much more to it than that. We are just beginning to understand that trees communicate with each other in many ways, including using a comprehensive underground network between their roots and fungi in the soil. This connects all the trees in a forest and allows them to share nutrients, communicate dangers and even send electrical signals to other trees when one is cut down. Trees also communicate with each other via pheromones and other scent signals. When we enter the forest, we are connected to all of these communication networks, and while we still don’t have a grasp on how, we know that when we do retreat to nature we experience undisputable health benefits.
Simple steps to nature's cure
Nature therapy certainly isn’t new. In fact, we’ve recognised the infinite power of nature to heal our minds and bodies since the dawn of time. Our modern-day disconnection with the outdoors has prompted us to return to our roots, as we seek out what’s missing in our lives in order to restore the balance we need to be healthy.
Many doctors are now prescribing downtime from devices and time outdoors to tackle the health implications of stress. And while most of us don’t have time to bathe in the forest all day long, we can take relatively simple steps to positively impact our health. Take a walk outside, move your yoga mat outdoors for your morning practice, find a green space in your local area and have your lunchbreak there. Take your shoes off and enjoy the health benefits of grounding—the simple joy of walking barefoot on the earth. You don’t have to be doing any particular activity outside to get the benefits, just be you. Be still, clear your mind and re-connect with mother nature – technology free.
For those suffering from depression, studies show the benefits of just twelve, two-hour walks over a 3-month period. That’s one good walk outside, just once a week. Similarly, a two-hour forest walk is shown to improve sleep quality in healthy adults. The same research also proves a week-long forest retreat effective at improving blood pressure. The time you are able to spend outdoors will vary based on your personal circumstances, so just do what works for you and what you are able to fit into your lifestyle. Research shows that simply looking at a picture of nature or having an indoor plant can reduce heart rate, increase feelings of comfort and relaxation and improve mood, so every little bit counts.
Because we evolved in nature, we have a biological need to connect with it. By reconnecting with nature’s rhythms, our biological rhythms realign. We inherently love nature because we learned to love the things that helped us survive. We feel comfortable in nature because that is where our ancestors evolved and thrived. So, if it feels like the forces of nature are calling to you, urging you towards the trees and the water with unsurmountable power, perhaps that’s because they actually are—reaching out to you with healing hands to draw you back home.
• Hansen MM, Jones R, Tocchini K 2017 Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing) and Nature Therapy: A State-of-the-Art Review Int J Environ Res and Pub Health 14, 851
• Li Q 2010 Effects of forest bathing trips on human immune function Environ Health Prev Med 15:9-17
• Li Q Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing 2018
• Mao G, Cao Y, Lan X, He Z, Chen Z, Wang Y, Hu X, Lv Y, Wang G, Yan J 2012 Therapeutic effect of forest bathing on human hypertension in the elderly. J Cardiol. 60, 495-502
• McCaffrey R, Hansen C, McCaffrey W 2010 Garden Walking for Depression: A Research Report. Holist. Nurs. Pract. 24, 245-254
• Wohlleben P, The Hidden Life of Trees: What they feel, how they communicate (Discoveries from a secret world) 2017
Dr Hayley Dickinson is a research scientist with a PhD in women’s reproductive health, who does not claim to be a medical practitioner. We seek to offer insights into the health of women experiencing the reproductive, menstrual and hormonal characteristics of female biology. In addition, we offer scientific insight into wellness and lifestyle choices relevant to all. Neither endota nor Dr Hayley Dickinson accept any liability for the information or advice (or use of such information or advice) which is provided in this blog or incorporated into it by reference. We provide this information on the understanding that all persons accessing it take responsibility for evaluating its relevance and accuracy. Women are encouraged to discuss their health needs with a health practitioner. If you have concerns about your health, you should seek advice from your health care provider or if you require urgent care you should go to the nearest hospital Emergency Department. © endota, 2018-2019