The healing power of nature
Updated: Feb 1
Can you remember a time when you were outside in nature and you felt at peace?
Maybe it was on a beach far from home, on a hike through rolling fields, or perhaps simply enjoying some rays in the garden?
I remember feeling the most relaxed I have ever been on a trip to the Borneo rainforest. My husband and I were staying on a boat for 3 days, sailing up the Sekonyer river to see orangutans and other native creatures in the wild. We were in the depths of the rainforest and it was an assault on the senses. Everywhere we looked, everything we saw and everything we smelled, felt like nature in its purest, most expansive form. The river was still and murky, the vegetation so green, dense and tangled. There were animals all around us – hiding beneath the surface of the river, rustling in the trees, swooshing through the air. The cacophony of sounds was at first deafening, but soon became magical. From the buzz of the cicadas to the food call of the monkeys, the jungle sounded alive. The healing power of nature
Our days were simple – we would sit at the front of the boat as we sailed, looking out for animals and in the afternoon, we would hike and watch orangutans feed. The evenings were dark, technology and alcohol free. It was just us, some delicious, simple food and the jungle.
Having been worried prior to the trip about my intense fear of spiders keeping me awake at night, I found myself sleeping soundly. As someone who has been plagued with sleeping issues for years, this was incredible to me. I’m the kind of person that needs the first week of a holiday to wind down, so it’s only by the second week that I’m feeling relaxed and rested. Not on this trip. After just one day on the boat I was doing something that is very foreign to me – napping! I felt a sense of calm I hadn’t felt in a long time and my usually warring mind seemed to be taking a holiday of its own.
I think we all know intuitively that nature is good for us. It's why patients spend time in the gardens of hospitals to get better, and why those who live in the countryside often seem more relaxed than those who live in cities. But given that most of us live in or just outside cities, do we need to think of nature as something we dose ourselves with in order to be well?
The science suggests that we do, yes.
It was first discovered in Japan that walking in a forest can reduce stress levels and induce a state of physiologic relaxation. The study showed that people who walked in a cedar forest for 40 minutes had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol which is known to drive inflammation in the body, which in turn, is the cause of most chronic disease(1). The participants had lower pulse rates, lower blood pressure and greater parasympathetic nerve activity, which is the bodies relaxation mode.
It turns out that there really is something about the smell of freshly cut grass...
Trees and plants emit compounds called phytoncides, which when inhaled, can increase our bodies natural killer (NK) cells. According to the British Society for Immunology, NK cells are best known for killing viruses, detecting and controlling early signs of cancer and playing an important role in pregnancy(2). More recently, NK cells have also been recognised for their role in preventing the immune system from over reacting chronically, which can lead to excessive inflammation and autoimmune disease(3). Dr Li of Nippon University, Japan, found that people who took two forest walks on consecutive days increased their NK cells by 50% and the activity of these cells lasted for more than seven days after the walks(4).
There is also real science behind the idea of patients recovering in a hospital garden. In his famous study in 1984, Dr Ulrich proved that post-operative patients with views of trees were released from hospital more quickly and took fewer medications than those with a view of a brick wall. There have been subsequent studies showing similar results. In fact, there is now research to show the positive effect of nature on a wide range of issues from depression to Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease and autism in children(5).
Perhaps the healing power of nature has never been more apparent than during this time of COVID lockdown. The once gardening-shy have taken to planting, pruning and cultivating like they are the next Alan Titchmarsh. For those who suffered lockdown #1 without a garden, many flocked out of cities in their droves to find some precious outside space, myself included.