Have you considered that nature is a form of medicine? The ancient Greek civilization expressed its need for nature through its father of medicine, Hippocrates, who said “airs, waters and places” were essential for well-being. You may feel profound relaxation on a beach, but you may not know exactly why you feel that way.
Scientists are trying to understand the many beneficial effects of nature and determine if there is a way to measure its effect on your body. Doctors in 34 states and several other countries are formally prescribing time outdoors to treat physical conditions. Below are some of the results that point to the fact that nature is effective medicine.
- Being outside can improve self-esteem, mood, blood pressure, sleep, birth outcomes and overall life satisfaction. It can also reduce stress, depression and inflammation and may speed recovery from illness or injury. And the more time you spend outside, the better. Scientists call this a dose-dependent effect.
- Being near water has positive effects, too. One study showed that people closer to the ocean or Great Lakes reported lower levels of psychological distress and higher overall health. Submersion in water changes the body’s hormones in a similar way to meditation. The power of water is summarized in a book called “Blue Mind.”
- Trees release a compound into the air that, among other things, increases your level of a blood cell that fights infection and tumors. The practice of being surrounded by trees—known as “forest bathing”—is a Japanese tradition that is becoming more popular globally.
- Getting away from the noises of the city allows us to be in a space of silence. Noise exposure can cause both physical and psychological stress and has been linked to a range of conditions such as insomnia, diabetes and cancer.
You don’t need to spend a lot of time outside to reap these beneficial effects. Scientists say two hours a week is the minimum, either all at once or spread out. Those who spend two hours outside report significantly better mental and physical health.
Nature engages your senses of sight, hearing and smell. Watching and listening to nature scenes and sounds (live or on video) can help you focus and relax and reduce anxiety. It can also help with recovery during hospital stays. Outdoor scents like flowers, rain and fresh dirt may improve your mood. When you can’t get outside, incorporate nature’s sights, sounds and smells into your indoor space.
Getting a daily dose of nature, no matter the season, could be just the boost you need to feel your best. Let’s get out there! It’s just what the doctor ordered.
Erica A. Wehrwein, PhD, is an associate professor of physiology at Michigan State University. Her research interests are on the connection between breathing and the nervous system, interactions of mindset and personality on physiological health outcomes and neural control of blood pressure.