Why Your Body Needs Nature

The average American checks their phone 52-180 times a day. When we’re not dialed into our handheld devices, many of us spend our days sitting indoors suctioned to the computer screen working or entertaining ourselves. 

If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering what kind of effect all this lack of activity and screen time has on your health. Let me tell you, it’s got some subtle but serious consequences. 

Activity is one thing—the more we sit on our butts, the more we run this risk for long-term health issues like heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

Now, partner that lack of activity with hours spent staring into the abyss of the screen and you experience a combination of physical and mental obstacles like back and neck pain, depression, anxiety, slow brain development, and more.

This isn’t new information, we all know staying inside, glued to technology is simply bad for your health and happiness—so what are we supposed to do?

What the human brain and body really craves…

According to Harvard naturalist Edward O. Wilson, humans have a natural desire or tendency to commune with nature—he named this inclination biophilia. 

It basically means that we as humans have to get outside, it’s literally woven into our very DNA!

The World Health Organization defines health as “a complete state of physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” 

I don’t know about you, but it sure feels like there’s a deep connection between spending time in nature and finding that state of optimal wellness.  

I have known for years that if I need to clear my head, calm my nerves or just fill my cup a bit – nothing revives me like the great outdoors. The sights, the sounds, the smells engage my senses. I make a point to reach out and touch some moss or to crush a few pine needles in my hand to use my sense of touch too. I rarely get to taste nature when out on a walk, though one July I did discover some fabulous wild cherry trees along a country road and I have made an annual pilgrimage there ever since. 

Your brain is constantly processing everything…

Our brains are busy taking in information, processing, interpreting, reflecting, creating, storing memories, accessing memories, perceiving, regulating, organizing, planning, and more. Crazy, right? I am tired just thinking about it! 

It turns out, in order to be able to focus and do things well our brains have to do a lot of work inhibiting. They have to turn off all of that background noise in order to pay attention to the task at hand. Young kids’ brains are still developing and they aren’t as good at inhibiting. 

That is why when my son was two he would often point to the sky and say “plane” when I was unaware that one was overhead. 

Our brain filters much of the input allowing us to focus. While we may not be aware of something, our brain is still processing it, and that effort to inhibit signals uses energy. Switching tasks uses up energy too. When our brain gets exhausted, that is when we start to make mistakes or get irritable. 

Now imagine what your brain is like when it is constantly getting stimulated by all the things you put in front of it with screens and online activity—you can quickly see how it becomes overwhelmed. 

What nature can do for your brain and body

1. Nature Changes Your Mood. 

Studies show that people who don’t walk in nature obsess over negative thoughts less than those who walk in nature. That alone can improve our outlook. It turns out our brains get good at what they practice. If you practice negative thoughts you are literally making physical changes in your brain such that it gets better at practicing negative thoughts. Nature can contribute to breaking that cycle.

2. Nature Boosts Your Immune System. 

A 2005 study at Nippon Medical School in Japan measured the amount of natural killer (NK) immune cells found in blood samples after study subjects spent three days in the forest. NK’s are a type of white blood cell that helps destroy things such as viruses and tumors in our bodies. (We know that things such as stress, aging and pesticides can decrease the quantity of NK’s we have circulating in our blood.) Just after 3 days in the forest the participants in this study had a 40% increase in NK’s. A week later levels were still 15% higher than at the beginning of the study. 

3. Nature Heightens Your Attention. 

Many things in our daily lives can be over-stimulating, All of that inhibiting work in our brain can drain us. Nature provides a reprieve by offering our brains something interesting, but not TOO interesting.This is something researcher Rachel Kaplan at the University of Michigan calls “soft fascination.” It gives our brains a rest from that over stimulating input. This helps us not only concentrate better, but it increases our creativity too. 

4. Nature Optimized Body Functionality. 

Those fabulous nature smells go straight to our brains. Actinomycetes are compounds found in soil that may decrease stress and increase concentration. Aromatic volatile substances, also called phytoncides, are the wonderful smells you get from evergreen trees, which may help decrease blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and headaches.

What is the recommended dose of nature needed by humans?

With nature it is mostly a case of more is better. Below are some guidelines.

  • Daily: Soak in some green in your neighborhood park or garden. Spending 2 hours a week in nature already shows some health benefits. Getting to 10 hours a week is optimal. 
  • Weekly: This is a good time to get in those “minimum” 2 hours by visiting nearby areas such as larger city parks, regional parks or nearby water sources. 
  • Monthly: Head to a more remote place where the nature is a bit wilder and the people fewer. Make a day-trip of it and if possible make it an overnight trip.
  • Yearly: Seek out a multi-day, nature based vacation

De-stress with restorative nature experiences…

  • Look for opportunities to experience “soft fascination” such as watching a sunset, falling rain or leaves rustling in the wind. 
  • Vacation in nature.
  • Seek regular quiet time outside of your home. 
  • When possible, walk under trees in urban settings.
  • Listen to the sounds of wind, water, and birds as humans find those particularly soothing.

Make the most of your time in nature…

Getting out into nature is good by itself, but there are a few things you can do to take the benefits up a notch. 

  • Practice mindfulness. Pay attention to your body and mind as you move through nature. How does it make you feel? Observe your breathing, do a body scan to notice what you are experiencing. Sit for a moment, take a few deep breaths with your eyes shut and really take in the sounds and smells
  • Express gratitude. As you are walking, take a moment to express gratitude for the things you see such as the trees, the blue sky or a little chirping bird. Nature is a great way to connect spiritually with our world. 
  • Go with a friend. We are social creatures. Going into nature with a friend gives us the benefit of both time in nature and the benefit of building our relationships. 

Nature is calling…

It’s simple—we need to spend more time outside! It’s part of our human roots to be present and part of the natural world. By proactively seeking out opportunities to be in nature, we can develop a deeper connection to the world around us and a strong connection with our own mind and body.

Take 1 hour this week to do something outside, it could be a walk, run, sitting by the lake, whatever you want, just make the time to get outside and enjoy God’s creation.

If you’re eager to learn more about nature’s impact on human health, check out Nature Fix by Florence William—he dives deep into the science of how good the great outdoors is for the human body and brain.

If you’re looking for more health practices that restore your mind, body, and faith, sign up for my newsletter and get more health tips dropped to your inbox.

About the Author

Gionne Celebi is a fellow graduate from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. Gionne is passionate about how health, nature, and the human brain connect.

References

Williams, F 2017, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, New York

National Institute for Health (NIH), 2008, Inhibition and Brain Work, Jul-7-2021, 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2266612/

Nippon Medical School, 02: Forest Medicine,  Jul-7-2021, 

https://www.nms.ac.jp/college/english/research/topics/topics02.html

Read Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing by Qing Li. Li is an immunologist and forest medicine expert in the department of environmental medicine at Nippon Medical School.