How To Use Nature To Regain Your Health

Physician By Eva Selhub, M.D.
Dr. Eva Selhub is a resiliency expert, physician, author, speaker, scientist, and consultant. She studied medicine at Boston University and is board certified in Internal Medicine.
How To Use Nature To Regain Your Health

Photo by Marija Savic

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Our connection with nature is fundamental to our health and well-being. The lives of our ancestors were intricately intertwined with nature, and many cultures looked to the earth for wisdom and healing. It may seem obvious that nature is important, but many people in this world are completely nature-deprived, and science is busy trying to explain why, exactly, we need it so much.

Now, scientists are posing questions that could only be contemplated by modern humans like noticing how you feel when you look out your window at a concrete wall compared to a beautiful meadow, ocean, or sunset. If you were to think about these two scenarios, right now, I’m pretty sure you would notice a difference in how your body reacts. So is it any wonder our bodies react differently to being surrounded by a concrete jungle versus being out in the wonders of nature?

If there is a difference in how you feel when it comes to looking at nature from your window, imagine how positive the effects are when you are actually immersing your senses in nature in real time—when you’re actually feeling the breeze caress your skin, the sun warming your body, the smell of the ocean air, or the taste of sea salt on your lips. I bet you noticed your body begin to relax by the mere descriptions of an experience in nature.

Once again, if thinking about nature—or looking at it through the window—leads to positive changes in our mood and the tension you’re holding in your body, imagine how beneficial it actually is to be IN nature, and conversely, how detrimental it can be to your health to be devoid or separated from nature.

Human beings evolved intricately connected to nature for millions of years. The nomadic life of hunting and gathering stopped only about 10,000 years ago when agriculture took over, and even then, our ancestors lived out of homes made from the earth and ate foods directly grown from the earth. They traveled without cars or technology and healed the sick with wild herbs. They would rise with the sun and retire with the sunset—with the stars overhead guiding their way.

Now, we live in a world in which technology has taken over, distracting us from our need to be outdoors or connected to nature. And though it has allowed for many incredible advances in health, it has also kept us from being connected to something that we, as human beings, need in our lives to feel optimal.

Are we spending enough time in nature?

For example, according to a 2009 Report on American Consumers done by the University of California, San Diego, since 1980, there has been a massive 350 percent increase in digital information consumption—with a mean use of screen time (includes texting, television, web browsing, gaming, etc.) of over 12 hours per day. And imagine—if this study was done in 2009—how much more the numbers have climbed today, especially if 64 percent of U.S. adults now have a smartphone versus 35 percent in 2011. That’s almost double!

And since we’re paying more attention to the screen, it is any wonder visits to national parks and nature-based activities have declined significantly and that there seems to be a correlation between increased screen time and higher rates of depression, anxiety, fatigue, and poor performance?

This may be the case, as some scientific studies show that mortality rates go up the farther one lives from green space, or rather, that mortality rates are lower when one lives closer to green space. My point here is that though there are many reasons why living in a concrete jungle that is polluted and full of people may cause our health to suffer, what’s more compelling is the science of why spending more time in nature is good for us.

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Can nature really make you happier?

fMRI studies confirm that nature is like a drop of morphine in the brain, stimulating the release of feel-good chemicals like dopamine, which help you feel happier. For example, a study done in Korea, for instance, showed participants photos of rural versus urban scenes. They found that there was an increased activity in the anterior temporal pole—the part of the brain that is associated with negative emotions, responses, and feelings like anger and depression—in response to the urban scenes. But when the participants viewed the rural photos, there was more activity in the reward areas of the brain like the basal ganglia and dopaminergic reward centers—which are associated with emotional stability, empathy, love, happy memories, and pleasure. These are the same areas of the brain that correspond to happy faces and recollection of happy memories.

How To Use Nature To Regain Your Health

Photo: Kristen Curette Hines

Will green space reduce your stress levels?

Multiple studies confirm that whether an individual is immersed in nature, looking at nature, or thinking about nature, there is better recovery from stress, less activity in the amygdala (the fear center in the brain), lower levels of stress hormones like cortisol, and decreases in blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension. In addition, apparently, the more green space you live next to, the better you are at recovering from stress, as if the green space acts as an actual stress-buffering mechanism.

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Can nature help you regain your health after illness or injury?

It appears that whether you’re looking at a beautiful view of nature, are visited by a pet, or have a plant in the room, nature helps you heal, feel less anxious, have less pain, have more energy, and get out of the hospital faster. In his landmark study, Roger S. Ulrich, Ph.D. and director of the Center for Health Systems and Design at Texas A&M University collected records from Pennsylvania hospital (from the dates ranging from 1972 to 1981) of adults who had gone through gallbladder surgery and looked at what rooms they recovered in. In other words: He analyzed whether or not the rooms have a view of trees versus a brick wall and then drew associations between the patients' exposure to nature, medical complications, notes from the nurses relative to pain and need for medication, and length of the hospital stay. The study showed that those patients with views of the trees had significantly shorter hospital stays, fewer post-surgical complaints, less need for potent analgesic medications (aspirin instead of narcotics), and a lower amount of negative comments placed in their charts by nurses.

Will connecting with the earth improve your brain health?

If you are like me, spending too much time in front of the screen leaves me with brain fog and fatigue. Conversely, being out in nature leaves me feeling alert and invigorated so that I have improved focus and concentration. Sounds familiar? Well, science confirms that this is actually true for most individuals—showing that exposure to nature can improve attention, energy, memory, mood, and cognition. For example, it has been shown that people who walk in the forest versus an urban environment have significant improvements in cognition after the walk, and students who have an unobstructed view of nature outperform their peers who do not have this view on standardized measures of attention. As for children with ADHD, the greenness of play areas has been associated with milder symptoms of attention deficit, and windowless indoor play areas have been associated with more severe symptoms.

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Is outdoor exercise the best kind of exercise?

For many people, exercise is a chore. Even so, it seems that being outdoors makes exercise easier. So whether you’re jogging or walking, doing it out in nature instead of indoors has been associated with more energy, and less fatigue, pain, and negative thinking. For athletes, this is also true. Researchers at Texas State University, for example, found that athletes’ performances improved when they were surrounded by more green space.

Can connecting with nature boost your immune system?

Nature helps you feel better, but it also helps you get better. One reason for this comes from unseen elements in nature called phytoncides, which help lower stress hormones, anxiety, and pain as well as increase the production of anti-cancer proteins in the blood and the front-line immune-defense natural-killer cells.

Other unseen elements include the small negatively charged ions that are found in clean air; these have been shown to aid in reducing stress and anxiety and improving cognitive performance, wound healing, and antioxidant activity. These negative ions are quickly depleted in polluted environments, enclosed and air-conditioned rooms, and especially rooms that have electronic devices such as computers, photocopiers, and televisions. Negative ions are more abundant in natural settings, after a rainfall, near oceans and waterfalls, and inside pine forests and woodlands.

Are you convinced yet? The research is abundant, and there are too many studies to cite—whether they’re pointing to the benefits of sunlight or eating more greens—on how you can use nature to regain your health. The good news is that it is easy to get nature back into your life, even if you live in an urban setting.

How To Use Nature To Regain Your Health

Photo: michela ravasio

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Want to connect with nature right now?

1. Keep photos of nature around you.

Even if you can’t get out in nature, you can spend some time appreciating photos of nature. Keep them scattered around your home or office for good measure.

2. Take a walk.

Feeling stressed? Go for a walk in a garden, the beach, or in a grassy field full of flowers. Engage all of your senses and really savor the experience.

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3. Exercise outside.

Find places to exercise in nature. Find a park, forest, or beach, for instance. If you choose to walk, do so for at least 20 minutes.

4. Practice mindfulness out in nature.

Engage all your senses in the present moment, appreciating the sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and feel of everything around you. Look at everything in nature with awe. Try to do this practice for at least 20 minutes.

5. Listen to guided meditations that involve scenes of nature.

Feel-good chemicals will flow through your brain and body both because you are meditating and igniting memories of being in nature.

6. Do a weekend getaway in a nature setting.

Removing yourself from your daily stress and immersing yourself in nature will do wonders for your stress levels and mental and physical health. In the olden days, doctors used to prescribe "green" therapy to their patients to find their calm, sanity, and health. Choose a place that is beautiful where you have the opportunity to explore nature or simply sit quietly in it.

7. Eat in a way that connects you with nature.

Eat foods that grow naturally from the earth, preferably organic, from local farms, or from your own garden. The closer you feel to the food you eat, the closer you feel to the earth and the healthier you will be.

8. Cultivate your own garden.

Till the soil and watch vegetation grow from seed to fruit or vegetable. Your connection with yourself, the earth, and life itself will be enhanced. Spending that time outdoors will also offer you a bit of exercise, vitamin D, and plenty of feel-good nature therapy.

9. Exposure yourself to negative ions.

Get outside after a rainfall and soak up the negative ions and put plants throughout your house and office to bring nature into your home. If you are at work or at home and are having a hard time concentrating, take a quick nature break. Go for a walk, breathe in refreshing air, or sit quietly by a tree or nature landscape if you can.

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