How Nature Supports Immunity, Longevity & Brain Health — Backed By Research
We hesitate to call nature a "tool" you can use to benefit your health—as that greatly underestimates the amazing capacities of the world around us—but we also can't ignore the sheer number of healing benefits associated with getting outside. In fact, mbg's senior sustainability editor Emma Loewe, author of the new book Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us, considers nature a critical pillar for optimal health and well-being. "Incorporate nature time into your wellness routine. It's just as important as eating healthy and exercising," she says on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast.
Specifically, spending time in nature has been linked to better immunity, longevity, and brain health (among other good things, which you can learn more about in the episode). Here, find some science-backed benefits of the Great Outdoors and how to include nature in your wellness routine, wherever in the world you reside:
Perhaps you've heard of forest bathing, a Japanese method called shinrin-yoku that places heavy emphasis on fully immersing oneself in a forest environment and engaging all five senses. This method has been shown to reduce stress1 as well as promote a stronger immune response2.
"Essentially it's taking a walk through a forest but really engaging all of your senses as you do it so you're really 'bathing' in your surroundings," Loewe explains. "And medical doctors are finding that after taking that trip into a forest while employing some of these mindful practices, people tend to come back with increased immune health." Specifically, she references a 2018 study that measures forest bathing's impact on natural killer (NK) cells2, which are the first line of defense in the immune system.
"They found that after a three-day forest bathing trip, people tended to have increased NK cell count and activity. And interestingly enough, that increase actually stayed for a 30-day follow-up," she says. In other words, those immune-supporting benefits of nature stay with you long after you leave the green space.
You heard it here first: "People tend to live longer if they live close to green space," notes Loewe. A 2016 study even found that those who had access to green space had a 12% lower rate of mortality, even when the researchers adjusted for other risk factors like age, smoking status, etc.
City dwellers, you might take one look at this research and think: Great, I'm doomed. But according to Loewe, just a bit of green space can really make a difference. "It's not necessarily access to a grand, expensive park that seems to have the highest associations," she explains. "It's the green space that's right outside of your front door, and street trees totally count. They get picked up in that satellite imagery." Parks are important, no doubt, but Loewe says we should focus on making more green spaces accessible rather than focusing on one, giant, beautiful park. "That's a real boon to public health."
Yes, we just discussed how nature supports a long life, but Loewe says these longevity benefits actually have a lot to do with mental health—we likely don't have to remind you how stress can affect your overall health. "Mental health is not just nice to have. It's necessary to have, and nature is a place we can go to improve it," she says.
Just take this "Mappiness" study, for example, which used an iPhone app to ping participants at different times of the day to ask them what they were doing, how they felt, and what environment they were in. The results? "[Researchers] found that most often people felt restored and relaxed in an area that had both blue space and green space," Loewe recounts. What's more, they felt the least relaxed indoors.
And to circle back to the forest bathing conversation, research has shown that the phytoncides on forest trees (aka, what gives them their smell) were associated with increased heart rate variability. "It's the calming look of the branches, the calming smell of the leaves; all these things combine into that nature experience," Loewe notes.
Indoor nature spaces can have an impact, too. Loewe highlights Matthew Wichrowski, MSW, HTR, a horticultural therapist at NYU: "Essentially his job is to go from room to room throughout the hospital and ask clients about the sorts of plants or flowers that they enjoy," she explains. "He sources them and brings them to their rooms, helps them plant them, and gets them set up in a nice spot."
And when he studied around 100 people who were recovering from a cardiac event, he found that patients who underwent his horticultural therapy program reported a better mood and improved heart-health outcomes after their sessions3, compared to those who did more traditional therapy. So good news if you've got a thing for houseplants: "There might actually be some restorative benefits to keeping them in your home," says Loewe.
By now, we can all hopefully understand just how important nature is for overall health—and there's quite a lot of research to back up the claim. Just remember that green space is, in fact, all around us. As Loewe notes: "We can have really restorative, incredible nature experiences within city limits."
If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking medications, consult with your doctor before starting a supplement routine. It is always optimal to consult with a health care provider when considering what supplements are right for you.
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.