By Jess Sorci, MNT
“In clinical studies, we have seen that 2 hours of nature sounds a day significantly reduce stress hormones up to 800% and activates 500 to 600 DNA segments known to be responsible for healing and repairing the body.”
- Dr. Joe Dispenza
When was the last time you unplugged from all of life’s distractions and stepped into nature? I am talking about leaving everything behind - social media, texts, emails, phone calls, media, stressful obligations, and all the stress that comes with work and family life.
For me, nature is my safe space, it is where I go when I need to re-charge, find clarity, and tap into my passion of photography that allows for a creative space of expression. Not long ago, I went on a backpacking trip to the San Juan Mountains, and it was during this trip where I began to consider nature as an underutilized healing modality for those struggling with chronic health issues, including depression and/or anxiety. More and more clinical research studies are beginning to examine other modes of promoting health, such as spending time in nature but, just how does nature improve our health and wellbeing?
Time in nature decreases states of anxiety and depression:
Spending time in nature has a positive effect on brain chemistry which improves symptoms of depression and anxiety. A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, discovered that those that walked in nature for 90-minutes compared to those in heavily trafficked or urban settings showed decreased neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex of the brain. The subgenual prefrontal cortex is an area of the brain that when over-active can lead to rumination – repetitive thoughts focused on negative emotions that can drive feelings of depression and anxiety. In another study, researchers discovered that those who spent time in nature reported reduced feelings of isolation, a sense of calm, and lifted moods. One suggested mechanism is that time in nature increases serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is highly involved in emotional regulation and sleep. A deficiency in serotonin increases feelings of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and impulsivity whereas adequate levels of serotonin promote feelings of pleasure, comfort, and overall happiness.
Time in Nature Improves Cardiovascular Health:
Other areas of clinical research have found that spending time in nature is effective in alleviating and preventing the symptoms of stress-related diseases, including cardiovascular disease. In this research, it was determined that a 30-minute walk followed by a 30-minute resting period in a forested area lowered the heart rate and improved heart rate variability (HRV). In addition, it was determined that exposure to natural environments lowers blood pressure levels and pulse rates, improving overall cardiovascular health.
Time in Nature Improves Stress Hormone Levels:
There are three main stress hormones, adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine and they all play a role in protecting us during stressful situations. Stressful situations, whether something environmental, such as work obligations, or psychological, such as constant worry – can trigger a cascade of hormones that alter the body’s physiology. Chronic stress can cause an increase in heart rate, quicken breathing, and promote tight muscles. This type of stress response is known as the “fight-or-Flight response, the body’s natural survival mechanism, allowing us to react quickly to life-threatening situations. Unfortunately, for most of us we live in a constant state of “fight-or-flight response as it can be triggered by running late, traffic jams, work pressure, and other stressors within the home. This chronic stress can lead to metabolic imbalances that promote inflammation and overall poor health.
Improves immune function:
Lastly, spending 45-minutes in nature has shown to have positive effects on immune function. Time in nature has shown to increase white blood cells (WBC) while decreasing pro-inflammatory cytokines that can activate an immune reaction promoting chronic inflammation. Of interest, when considering mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, there is growing research that has shown that inflammatory processes in the body can trigger mood related issues. Improving overall immune function to decrease inflammatory processes can also improve depression and anxiety.
As a holistic practitioner, the focus on healing needs to extend beyond our current treatment modalities of diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes. Yes, diet will help improve one’s health, but these interventions alone will not improve someone’s health in the presence of chronic stress. My recent trip has shown me that time in nature is not only good for the mind, body, and soul but also for our physical health. So, let’s go take a hike!
Park, B. J., Shin, C. S., Shin, W. S., Chung, C. Y., Lee, S. H., Kim, D. J., Kim, Y. H., & Park, C. E. (2020). Effects of Forest Therapy on Health Promotion among Middle-Aged Women: Focusing on Physiological Indicators. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(12), 4348.
Gregory N. Bratman, J. Paul Hamilton, Kevin S. Hahn, Gretchen C. Daily, James J. Gross. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jun 2015, 201510459; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1510459112