The People Pro® Blog

The Healing Power of Nature

By Barbara Bartlein, RN, MSW

The temperature is plummeting and it is dark by 4:30 pm. Like many others, my initial response is to hibernate until Spring, binging on Netflix and classic movies. But a large number of recent studies have shown that spending time in nature is responsible for many measurable beneficial changes in the body.

In one study, a forest-therapy expert and researcher at Chiba University in Japan, found that people who spent 40 minutes walking in a cedar forest had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is involved in blood pressure and immune-system function. Spending time in the forest induced a state of physiologic relaxation.

Another researcher, Dr. Qing Li, a professor at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, found that trees and plants emit aromatic compounds called phytoncides that, when inhaled, can spur healthy biological changes. In his studies, Li has shown that when people walk through or stay overnight in forests, they often exhibit changes in the blood that are associated with protection against cancer, better immunity and lower blood pressure.

Recent studies have also linked nature to symptom relief for health issues like heart disease, depression, cancer, anxiety and attention disorders. In a 2010 study, researchers found that people who took two long walks through forests on consecutive days increased their natural killer (NK) cells by 50% and the activity of these cells by 56%. Those activity levels remained 23% higher than usual for the month following the walks.

Not surprisingly, city dwellers are far more likely to have anxiety and mood disorders than folks who live in rural areas. That’s bad news since about 80% of Americans live in cities. The good news is that a small 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural setting, such as a forest or a nature park, were less likely to ruminate—a hallmark of depression and anxiety—and had lower activity in an area of the brain linked to depression.

Researchers don’t know exactly why nature seems to help mood disorders, but one possibility is that the air near moving water, forests and mountains contains high levels of negative ions, which are thought to reduce depressive symptoms.

Look for ways to build your connection with nature on a daily basis. Some suggestions:

  • Go for a walk. Most days the weather is nice enough, even in Wisconsin to take a walk. I am fortunate to live by a park and find it relaxing to take one of the trails.
  • Have some house plants and a garden. It doesn't have to be a lot of work but will bring a lot of pleasure. If you don't have a green thumb, plant begonias. They are almost impossible to kill.
  • Listen to nature sounds over headphones. These sounds help people recover faster from stress and surgery.
  • Use ocean sounds for white noise. Great for travel or anytime you want to relax to the addicting sounds of the ocean. We camp at the ocean each winter. The sea sounds and breezes cleanses one's soul.
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