I have often found spending time in nature whether it is a simple walk in the country, or spending some time in the mountains has always bought me a calming rejuvenating effect and I have made sure I get myself into nature as often as possible and I feel the benefits are tangible, but this is very much anecdotal in my case so can it really be seen as beneficial to general health and wellbeing?
It seems common sense that spending time outdoors would have some health benefits, after all we are off the sofa or away from the work desk, away from the TV or PC, we are going to be active and not sedentary and we are going to be getting some fresh air and maybe even some sunshine……. Unless you are based in the UK of course so there’s no guarantee of that!
Looking into it a little further, the general benefits of time spent in Nature or natural environments have been long established, and will be the subject to lots of other blog posts on this site. But for the first time some significant research has been carried out recently that has looked in more detail about the exact prescription of this ‘Nature Pill’ in relationship to stress. So Let’s take a closer look at the stress mechanism in the body and how taking a regular ‘Nature Pill’ can help.
Cortisol and Stress
We need to understand a little more about stress and the physiological mechanisms that cause it. To help us with this we need to understand the hormone Cortisol. If you have taken the time to read some of my previous posts regarding sleep, you will be familiar with the term ‘Circadian rhythm’ or what we will simply call our body clock. If you haven’t yet read them, it would be beneficial to take a look to give you a better understanding of sleep and many of its health benefits.
In relationship to sleep I mentioned the hormone Melatonin that increases naturally as the light goes down and we enter dusk and is key to providing us with a sleep pressure as we move towards bedtime. Cortisol on the other hand can be seen as the complete opposite to this. Cortisol builds in the body early in the morning, almost as a wake promoting hormone allowing us to wake up and be more alert and generally lowers as we get later in the day and is at its lowest point sometime in the middle of the night.
Cortisol is in fact our main stress hormone, and is probably best known as helping fuel our ‘Fight or Flight’ response in a crisis or when we face a perceived danger. It does however also play an important function in many other functions of our body including regulating blood pressure, how our body uses Carbs, fats and proteins and as already mentioned controlling our sleep wake cycle to name but a few.
Stress is a natural part of being human, and can be seen as positive, something called ‘eustress.’ Consider a presentation or project at work that is challenging but once overcome gives you a feeling of fulfillment achievement, or maybe training at the gym where we put our body under stress but the positive feeling and outcomes are numerous’ both physical and mental. These are both simple real life aspects of the positive benefits of Stress.
The problem occurs in situations when we are under chronic stress, something called ‘distress.’ This increases Cortisol in the body to higher levels when it shouldn’t normally be increased and keeps us in an almost constant state of alert or ‘distress’ with no rest, relaxation or break from this state. Over time this can have a serious negative effect on our health and wellbeing and anything we can do to reduce periods of negative stress in our lives should be implemented.
Stress and Health
The detrimental health effects of long term exposure to stress are numerous and many, and are probably best discussed in more depth in a separate blog. What is for certain however is it can influence negatively all aspects of the human organism included physical, cognitive, behavioral and emotional issues.
Think of raised blood pressure, ulcers or stomach cramps, forgetfulness, irritability or failure to be able to sleep. Maybe overeating or a dependence on alcohol or drugs, all the way to depression or symptoms of anxiety. A pretty grim list of symptoms, I’m sure you would agree.
From a personal experience, I can recall specific times in my life especially with a previous job where constant workload and stress over a long period really had a negative impact on my health and wellbeing and I can certainly identify with some of those symptoms highlighted above. Ultimately I chose to take myself out of that situation, but it’s not always as simple as that. I’m sure we could all recall some situations of distress in our lives, some that last longer than others.
A study published in Frontiers of Psychology back in April looked for the first time at specific amounts of time spent in nature and its effects on stress relief. This study describes the relationship between duration of a nature experience, and changes in the physiological bio marker of stress, Cortisol.
Over an 8-week study period, 36 urban dwellers were asked to have a nature experience, defined as spending time in an outdoor place that brings a sense of contact with nature, at least three times a week for a duration of 10 min or more. During the study, it found that spending between 20-30 mins in nature led to a significant 9.6% drop in Cortisol, this lowering effect continued after the 30 mins but at a lesser rate.
Taking a ‘Nature Pill’
As I mentioned in the introduction to this blog post, I’ve always found some time spent in nature has been beneficial to myself in terms of my health and wellbeing, and this relationship has been long established in research findings.
For the first time however we can now see some specific data in terms of duration spent in nature and some of its benefits. What was interesting from the study is that the drop in Cortisol was measured despite what type of activity was undertaken whether it be simply siting or walking.
I think moving forward, this type of research and information will lead to a much further and thorough exploration of time spent in Nature and the design of our Urban environments and the possible prescription of this type of ‘therapy’ for the general population.
For myself right now, I think it really highlights probably what I already knew and appreciated about being outside in nature, but we can see that if we are feeling stressed out in any way, a simple 20-30 minute time out or break in a natural environment can have some significant beneficial effects on our stress levels.
Of course just taking a 30 minute walk, or sitting on a park bench will not manage all of lifes stress levels. It’s probably far too simplistic to think that, as stress is often a complex and multi layered issue. Obviously if you recognise some of the symptons highlighted above, the first stop should be a visit to your Dr to investigate further.
However, I do think that recognizing the very real benefits of a taking a quick ‘nature pill’ shouldn’t be underestimated. After a stressful day at work, instead of heading to the bar, maybe substitute it with a walk in the park? It might just be the best pill you ever take.
Simply being aware of some of the symptoms of stress and seeking help in dealing with it in your life has to be front and centre of your thinking to move towards a longer, happier and healthier life.