One of the highlights of my year is a fall wilderness trip with friends to Algonquin Park or somewhere on the Canadian Shield. We paddle through lakes and streams and then portage our belongings as we traverse trails in the woods from lake to lake. The scenery is magnificent – beyond every corner is another Group of 7 painting. The trips are fun, physically challenging and, most importantly, mentally rejuvenating. As we go deeper in the woods, my usual daily worries seem to dissolve and fade away. Stress seems a distant memory, and I resolve to bring what I learn from that experience back into my daily life.
As it happens, I’m not the only one who feels less stressed in nature. There is a wealth of research that shows nature’s profound influence on our mental health and happiness. Much of it is compiled in “Your Brain on Nature”, a recently published book by medical doctor Eva Selhub and naturopathic doctor Alan Logan. The results are solid and conclusive. An important key to improved health is to get outdoors.
Roger S. Ulrich was a pioneer in the field of stress physiology and nature. In the 1980’s, he and his research team measured higher alpha wave amplitudes in the brains of subjects exposed to scenes of nature. (Higher alpha wave activity is associated with increased production of serotonin – the “happy” chemical in our nervous system.) Ulrich also studied muscle tension, and heart activity (with EKGs) of undergraduate students and found that when played a stressful video followed by a nature video, the nature scenes offset the effects of the stress.
Ulrich’s findings have been replicated in more recent research. A 2004 Japanese study showed that the presence of green plants lowers blood pressure and heart rate and increased alpha wave activity in patients with mental illness. Dr. Yoshifumi Miyazaki of Chiba University found lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in subjects after 40 minute walks in the forest compared to those who took laboratory walks.
Have you ever noticed you are more likely to get sick during times of stress? This is because stress hormones like cortisol can suppress immune cells like natural killer cells and lead to a greater susceptibility to illness. Researchers from Nippon Medical School measured the impact of “forest bathing” – spending a whole day in the forest (or a couple of hours per day for three days) – on immune system function. The results showed that forest bathers had a significant increase in the number and functional activity of natural killer cells for a full week after the trip compared to those who took an urban trip who experienced no such increase.
Nature also seems to improve our cognitive abilities. A 2004 study from University of Illinois reported that “green time” improved symptoms of ADHD – concentration and impulse control – in children. Activities conducted in green outdoor settings were associated with milder ADHD symptoms immediately afterward.
Unfortunately, as the health benefits of nature become clear, we are spending less and less time out of doors, and more time in front of a screen. Young people spend, on average, a staggering 7 hours and 38 minutes each day using entertainment media. Half of them have a console video game player in their bedroom and seven out of ten have a TV in their room. An Ipsos Reid poll says 59% of Canadian teens “can’t live without” the internet. And a survey reported in the Chicago Tribune showed that 40% of iPhone users would rather give up brushing their teeth for a week than go without their phone!
It’s no secret that the internet, texting and social media like twitter and facebook have an almost addictive quality. When we hear that familiar ‘ding’ telling us we have mail, the body releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in the brain’s reward system. We are wired to crave information. As modern technologies provide us with instant satisfaction to that desire, it’s no wonder that our screen time has eclipsed our time in nature. But this trend is occurring at the expense of our mental health. Long term studies are showing screen media consumption is associated with more depression, social anxiety, psychological difficulties and less sleep.
So as screen time increases for most people, time in nature decreases and stress and anxiety rates rise. People are losing their connection to nature and becoming less tuned in to the restorativebenefits to our mental health. And as Selhub and Logan suggest, there is also an environmental loss: “It’s not possible to cultivate true concern and empathy for nature while being completely detached from it”. Less time in nature is bad news for not only our health, but for environmental conservation.
So our green spaces need to be protected. Access to nature, especially in the urban core or lower income areas where it hasn’t always been made available, needs to become more of a priority. And people need to be made more aware of the psychological benefits of connecting to nature. How we spend our leisure time is critical to our own health and the health of the planet.
Since reading “Your Brain on Nature” I have been excited to prescribe “time in nature” to some of my patients. And I’m finding people are generally receptive to such a simple solution. Like many naturopathic treatments, there is some effort involved and new habits to be formed. But the payoff is real and measurable, and a good reminder that the answers to our health concerns aren’t always in pill-form.
Michael Torreiter is a naturopathic doctor and clinic co-director at Healing Path Centre for Natural Medicine. He obtained his Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine designation at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto in 2005 and has been working at Healing Path in uptown Waterloo ever since.