The Science Behind How Nature Will Jump-Start Your Healthy New Year
Sure, environmentalists, outdoor adventurers, and camping enthusiasts will vouch for the restorative powers of nature any day of the week, but there is no better way to reconnect with the earth than at the dawn of a new year. mbg's Nourishing New Year is all about the simple, seasonal ways we reconnect with ourselves, one another, and our world. We polled leading experts across the health world—from neurologists to naturopaths, microbiologists to acupuncturists—for their take on what makes nature the healing wonder it is and how we can all be getting more of it in the new year.
Here are just a few of the truly incredible ways that the natural environment can boost nearly every aspect of our well-being. Who's ready to make hiking a habit in 2018?
A natural Rx.
For starters, time in the great outdoors can actually have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body. "Time outside has been linked to reduced musculoskeletal pains, improved immune function, and potentially even has anti-cancer effects," explains Jaime Schehr, N.D., R.D., a naturopath and founder of xFitlab, a scientific testing facility for athletes.
"Plus, it is no secret that sunshine is largely responsible for our ability to synthesize vitamin D, an essential cofactor in many vital processes in our body. Low levels of vitamin D can have a negative effect on mood, weight gain, cancer prevention, sleep, and immune function," she adds. "So many of us rely on taking capsules of vitamin D, but daily walks and exposure to sunshine can encourage the body's own ability to increase vitamin D levels."
From the macro to the micro.
The restorative power of nature starts in its tiniest building blocks, according to clinical microbiologist Douglas Toal, Ph.D. "Numerous studies have demonstrated that the presence of soil and vegetation can have a significant impact on the composition of colonizing microbiota," he says. Basically, getting a little dirty outside promotes the rich, diverse microbiome we're all after. "Even in an urban environment, proximity to green spaces provides a much richer population of colonizing microbiota versus urbanized environments such as parking lots." He adds that we shouldn't give up hygiene in the name of diversifying our microbiome, though, so no drinking from an outdoor stream unless you know it's clean.
Dr. Toal also has a fascinating take on the connection between the microbiome and conservation efforts. "Since environmental biodiversity is so critical to our own health and physiology, perhaps we should all be more incentivized to preserve it. Research has shown that microbial diversity promotes wellness, and that significant loss of microbial species within our bodies promotes inflammation and chronic disease. So the destruction of natural habitats and urbanization not only affects the health of the environment, but it also affects our health and wellness by removing healthy colonizing microbiota."
Stressed? Take a walk outside.
When asked about nature's benefits, holistic neurologist Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D. says that it can be therapeutic for depression, anxiety, cognitive impairment, and headaches. "Whether we are leaning against an isolated tree in our neighborhood or fully immersed in natural landscapes on a backpacking trip, our brains are able to return to a more primitive rhythm as it connects with the angle of light from the sun and calms with the physiological release of the happy neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. It does not even have to be a long exposure. Even 20 minutes per day can have this effect. Improving mood has a positive effect on stress levels and morbidity and also creates happier communities, which in turn builds collegiality among neighbors," she says.
Functional medicine practitioner William Cole, D.C., points to research on how nature can help regulate mood disorders. "Studies have even shown that spending up to 90 minutes in nature can reduce negative thoughts as well as activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex area of the brain that is responsible for mood disorders and negative thoughts."
The happiness factor.
"I think the benefits of spending time outdoors can be felt more than they can be measured by our current instruments," says holistic psychiatrist and one of mbg's trusted sleep and anxiety experts Ellen Vora, M.D. "There's something about the smell of fresh air, trees, and dirt; the impact the colors and views of nature have on our eyes; the ways our nervous system recalibrates when it hears the subtle sounds of birds and a breeze passing through leaves. All of it positively affects our mood, stress levels, and perspective and allows us to feel connected to the earth and to the larger experience of being human on this planet." She adds that our internal clock even works by taking cues from nature, so exposing your eyes to more of the light of day and less of the glare of your cellphone will lead to some of the best sleep of your life.
Mother nature as a balancing force.
Acupuncturist, holistic nutritionist, and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) expert Paige Bourassa, MSTOM, L.Ac., RHN, traces nature's power to its medicinal energy. "TCM theory states we are all made up of the five elements that are found in nature. Therefore, if we are out of balance, living in a disharmonious or diseased state, we can draw on the principles of the nature around us to rebalance our chi, blood, yin, and yang. Running or exercising in nature is an excellent way to move liver chi stagnation, which builds in your body as stress and frustration, whereas sitting around large trees and being around earth will calm our yang energy and ground us with yin energy. Balancing your body naturally is what it's all about!"
Become one with the stars.
"We lose the sense that we are a walking miracle. It's a miracle to be alive. It's a miracle that there's air—and we get to breathe it without thought," acclaimed environmentalist and author of Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, Paul Hawken, explains of why we should make a habit of appreciating the nature that surrounds us. "When my daughter was two years old, I'd take her out into my arms in the night and for her it was just astonishing that there was the moon and the stars in the sky.
"I think of that Emerson quote. He said, 'What would we do if the stars came out only once every thousand years?' I'm pretty sure we'd stay up all night. I'm pretty sure we'd celebrate, we'd be joyous. We'd dance. It would be an extraordinary event in the history of humanity. Instead, the stars come out every night, and we watch television."
Inspired to spend more time outside this year? You don't need to wait until spring. Here are three ways to sneak out into nature during the winter months. And here's a super-powerful practice for harnessing all of nature's feel-good energy quickly.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.