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Nearby Nature; Boosts Immunity, Restores Inner Calm

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The Situation
“Stay home. Do nothing. Save lives.” This is basically our new medium-term prescription for safe life on Earth. Eek. Yes, social isolation and staying in your home will prevent the spread of viruses and other potential person to person transmittable diseases. And yet many of us long for something more.

Photo by Eric Aldrich featured in article by Matthew L. Miller, 23 March 2020.

Some have become creative for us, listing innovative ways of experiencing nature (wild animals and habitats) indoors for those who are in complete isolation/ are too sick, or not able to go outside for some reason(1) – see great article HERE).

Indoor environments can be beautiful and inspiring and yet when leaned on too much, as we often do in this society and era, we find they fall really short. They provide little stimulation, don’t permit enough required sunlight, are laden with a hundreds of chemical toxins and contain stale air, often possessing high concentration of mould spores, excess dust, and no airborne medicines, known to exist in ‘wild,’ outdoor air.

Getting to an airy, vibrant, healthy natural area may mean a short drive, but we’re fortunate that most cities have many wild spaces still within their boundaries. Some are so close that a short walk will land you in a great place to take in one of nature’s many jewels.

Our own yards and neighbourhoods can be great, especially if they are populated with a wide variety of native plants. And yet immersing in a greater natural area can do much more for us, for what is both there (vibrant wild plants, animals, landforms) and not there (air, water, ground, and sound pollution).

Populate your yard(s) with native plants and watch nature return sooner than you know, while reaping the benefits of calm and increased immunity. Photo B Porchuk.

The Science
Research over the past 40 years has shown us what we intuitively know. Nature gives us a preventative boost to our immunity. It is a prescription for many afflictions. It is a place where we find our ‘rest and relaxation’ state, providing a pathway to prevention and healing(2,3).

A recent study suggests that the minimum time required outside to take in health benefits is a minimum 120 minutes (4) and yet other research shows further benefits from longer stays (see below). Being outside is one thing. Finding areas to access optimal habitats and using what we have learned about how to be outside to maximize our uptake of health benefits is another.

Slowing down enough to see one’s own reflection can be challenging enough this day and age. The current global pandemic provides a pause for us to reconnect with nature (making sure we maintain distance from passersby). Photo B. Porchuk.

A lot of the recent research has focused on guide-lead forest bathing/therapy walks as one highly effective way of taking in health benefits in nature. This research strongly indicates the following positive impacts (5,6,7,8): i) boosted immunity,

  1. reduced blood pressure,
  2. increased heart rate variability,
  3. faster recovery from surgery,
  4. mood stabilization,
  5. reduced impacts of ADD,
  6. arrested growth of tumors

Another summary view of the science of the health impacts in nature can be found in Kou (2015 – figure below).

This figure summarizes the some of the scientific literature on nature and health, listing the “active ingredients” in nature identified as having positive health impacts; physiological/psychological states, behaviours, and conditions tied to both nature and health; and specific health outcomes tied to nature. (Ming Kuo / Frontiers in Psychology Cognitive Science – as posted and quoted by Bob McDonald’s CBC Article, March 24 2020)

Of course, there are many ways to get the most out of nature immersion without a guide and without going on a forest therapy/bathing walk. These include refraining from excessive thoughts, finding your way to a place of natural sounds (quiet from human-induced noise), moving with slowness, and placing your focus on your senses. It all sounds easy and it is possible, and yet there is a good reason the practice of guide-led forest bathing/therapy has spread around the world in recent years.

What features in nature are responsible for inducing health and preventing disease?

Taking time to smell flowers can really impart simple joy. Photo B. Porchuk.

Smell and Scents
Our noses are also important pathways, inducing us into the parasympathetic nervous system, where we calm, rest, and digest. Conifers (evergreens) and oak trees give off the smell of sap, or ‘pine,’ a natural chemical known as phytoncides. The term phytoncide, coined by Russian bio-chemist Dr. Boris Tokin in 1937, literally means “exterminated by the plant(9). These are airborne tree-medicines are exuded to ward off insect, bacterial, fungal infections(10). When humans inhale them when in nature, they act as the ultimate de-stressor, reducing cortisol (stress hormone) production and release, rendering us calmed and less likely to enter a diseased state.

Photo by Charlotte Futcher. Fractal patterns in water and sand in Tofino, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

Many studies have shown how forest bathing/therapy walks in areas rich with phytoncides have elevated the levels of natural killer cells (NK-cells) and resulted in boosted immunity levels in participants, correlated with the amount of time spent in the environment(11). A three-hour walk results in boosted immunity for seven days and three days immersed in a phytoncide-rich location can elevate NK-killer cells for up to 30 days(11). This elevation of NK-cells has also been shown to kill tumours or virus-infected cells by the release of perfornin, granzymes in addition to granulysin(11).

Many other plants give off fragrances that boost our immunity, strengthen our heart muscles (e.g. Hawthorn), and leave us with a greater sense of relaxation (12).

Studies in following participants in forest therapy have demonstrated that walks lower one’s blood pressure and increase heart-rate variability(13). Heart rate variability (HR-V) is the variation in the time between each heartbeat. This is different from your heartrate, which is measured by the number of times per minute that your heart beats. Increasing HR-V means that we have a more dynamic heart that is able to respond more quickly to both situations of rest and relaxation and fight or flight (or in response to vigorous exercise) as one’s heartrate is not meant to stay the same speed at all times. For example, the roar of a lion or the blasting horn of a train would signal immediately to increase heartrate, jump into action and get out of the way. In the same way, winding around the bend on a trail and coming across a waterfall slows the interval between beats as we move into the parasympathetic nervous system. Increased HR-V means the heart becomes better able to shift into the required state. 

The smell of the Hawthorn Flower is good for strengthening your heart and it puts a smile on your face. Photo B. Porchuk.
A Black and White Warbler. Their songs are soothing to our ears, putting us at ease in the forest. Photo B. Porchuk.

Hearing and Sounds
Natural sounds not only lower our blood pressure and increase heartrate variability, but they help us heal(14). Think of the gentle whisper of wind through the leaves, the trickle of running water over rocks, and many other natural sounds – they increase our overall sense of wellbeing, including measurable decreases in mental distress, improved cognitive function, higher levels of creativity and fosters better sleep(15).

One sound sorely missing in our largely indoor lives is that of birds. Listening to the bird song actively re-wires our brains, reducing blood pressure, lowering heart rate, reducing stress and improving our mood. Consistent exposure to bird song leads to being more alert and better able to concentrate(16). Why? Our current world encourages us to tune out sound and drowns out natural sound.  Our biology is wired to use bird song to make us aware of predators and safety, in addition to expressing joy in the moment.  It is a sound that calibrates us with how we co-evolved in biologically rich environments. Becoming more aware brings us into trusting ourselves, greater focus, and the ability to calm.

Youth in our communities could really use bird song again. One study showed that just under 90% of teenagers suffer from stress from the need to look good on social media (17,18,19), whereas other research has illustrated how listening to bird song actively encourages people to follow their own interests and reduces the pressures of societal expectations(18,20,21).

As much as natural sounds are so good for us, sounds that are relatively new, such as traffic, lawn mowers, industrial machines, airplanes, and others take us into a negative state of thought called mental rumination. In this state, we feel frustrated, think of what we haven’t accomplished, and other challenges, ultimately leading to anger and stress. One study showed human-created noise has this effect, drowning the sounds of birds, running water, and other features that humans have grown accustomed to for thousands of years(22).

The wonderful trill of the male American Toad after an evening spring rain brings us a sense of wonder. Photo by M. Natvik.
Looking down a steep ridge and peeking through the fractal patterns of the leafless trees, barely making out the pathway of a wide creek in late March, 2020. Photo B. Porchuk.

Sight and Patterns
Just the mere act of seeing trees, ripples of sand at a beach, clouds in the sky, waves on the ocean, and other natural patterns in natural known as fractals moves our brain into the alpha wave state(23). This state is characterized by rest and relaxation where feelings of peace fortify our immunity simply by a lack of stress. Fractals are patterns that repeat at different scales. One study showed that seeing these patterns in trees through a hospital window was enough to make patients heal much faster than those who could not look out windows and see such patterns in nature[(22 – and see related(24,25,26)].

Sense of Touch
In the era of less contact between humans, it is more important than ever to be touched by nature. Calming sensations include the sunlight and breeze on your skin, water washing through our feet and legs in a creek, and the simple act of touching foliage(27). In addition to the benefits of slowing down enough to notice these ever-present, but seldom engaged gifts of the forest, of course, they impart many concrete health benefits as well. 

Just the phrase, ‘touched by water,’ seems to exude health and is one reason why dipping your feet in a creek is so healthy; it feels soothing. Good feelings are akin to good health. Beyond the feelings, science shows us that running water is an important source of negative ions – oxygen atoms with extra-negatively-charged electrons. One recently completed Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia was simply titled, “Feet in the Creek,” chronicling the positive health benefits of a negative ion ‘wash’ from the act of sitting with one’s feet in wild, running water(28).

Sunlight on our skin is a beneficial addition to our health (Vitamin D), protecting against inflammation, lowering blood pressure and more. Photo B. Porchuk.
I grew up playing in a creek most days of my childhood, not even knowing I was been washed with the benefits of negative ions. Photo by S. Dugsin-Porchuk.

Negative Ions
Negative ions are abundant in nature, especially in streams, around waterfalls, on the ocean surf, at the beach, and after a storm. They are extensive in forests and on mountains. The degree to which negative ions contribute to overall well-being and health is scientifically demonstrated, as they neutralize free radicals, which revitalizes cell metabolism, enhances immune function, purifies the blood, and they balance the autonomic nervous system, promoting deep sleep and healthy digestion. Negative ions also clear the air of airborne allergens, including excess pollen, mold spores, bacteria, and viruses(29).

Mental Health
I have had privilege of leading over two hundred forest therapy walks, many of which have included participants diagnosed with ADD. With these participants, I have repeatedly experienced a low participation rate in the beginning of these three-hour walks, followed by full engagement beginning midway through. After engagement is obtained in these walks, many of these ADD participants become the most expressive and passionate speakers in the council sharing circles. This demonstrates how successful the process of forest therapy is at capturing the attention and focus, as well as bringing significance to the experience in ADD-diagnosed participants. Studies have shown improved behaviour and focus of ADD-diagnosed children after having gone for a walk in a park(30). Further, the term ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ was coined to describe how nature can actually address many of the symptoms that are characterized by Attention Deficit Disorder(31).

All of these mentioned benefits don’t work as well in isolation. The above described positive effects work best in concert on your senses, with research indicating that a ‘smorgasbord’ that a wild place offers the senses experienced outside is much better than a mere ‘appetizer’ tried indoors (e.g. essential tree oils are nice in a diffuser indoors, but nowhere near as effective as their forms in a forest[32]).

For me and others who crave time in nature, nearby nature in urban areas are ‘Mentally Significant Areas,’ for the many mental health benefits they impart. Photo by S. Dugsin-Porchuk.

Universal Hum
A reason why this is so; being outside exposes us to the ‘universal sound’ or the ‘heartbeat’ of the Earth known as the Schumann Resonance: 7.83 Hz. When indoors, electricity, Wi-Fi, and electronics all interfere with the Schumann Resonance. This disruption of our natural background sound plays havoc with our circadian rhythms, affecting our melatonin production and thus preventing sound, consistent sleep(33).

Get outside. Explore. Be safe. Photo by B. Porchuk.

The Solution
The basis of taking in the healing qualities of nature is to be in nature. Most of us spend greater than 90% of each day inside(34). Get outside. As we do, we become more nature-connected and research shows we then want to protect nature more. As we get these feelings, we expand our efforts to care for other species, which curbs extinction rates, prevents infectious disease outbreaks(35), and of course leads to reversing climate change. As demonstrated above, this boosts our immunities and makes our own personal health much more resilient.

Yes, social distancing for a while is needed, especially from others who aren’t in your immediate family. But, once concern for this current viral pandemic has passed, let’s re-write the recommendations in this new era: “Get out of your home (step into out of doors). Do something (walk, connect in nature). Save your life (and those of many others, and future generations).”

* All of the photographs above were taken in cities of at least 100,000 except for Tofino, BC and Pinery Provincial Park (Ontario).

Literature Cited

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3. Park, B., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Hirano, H., Kagawa, T., Sato, M., & Miyazaki, Y. 2006. Physiological Effects of Shinrin-Yoku (Taking in the Atmosphere of the Forest)- Using Salivary Cortisol and Cerebral Activity as Indicators. Journal of Physiological Anthropology. 2006;26, 123-128.

4. White, M.P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J. et al. 2019. Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Sci Rep 9, 7730 (2019).

5. Li Q, Morimoto K, Kobayashi M, Inagaki H, Katsumata M, Hirata Y, Hirata K, Suzuki H, Li YJ, Wakayama Y, Kawada T, Park BJ, Ohira T, Matsui N, Kagawa T, Miyazaki Y, Krensky AM. 2008. Visiting a forest, but not a city, increases human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins. Int J Immunopathol Pharmacol 2008, 21:117-27.

6. Ryan R, Weinstein N, Bernstein J, Brown KW, Mistretta L, Gagne M 2010. Vitalizing effects of being outdoors and in nature. J Environ Psychol 2010, 30:159–168.

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8. Li, Q. 2018. Forest Bathing: How trees can help you find health and happiness. 309 pp. Viking Press.

9. Romanov, B. 2005. Phytoncides.

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12. Iwamoto M, Sato T, Ishizaki (1981). The clinical effect of Crataegus in heart disease of ischemic or hypertensive oricin. A multicenter double-blind study. Planta Med. 1981;42(1):1-16.

13. Farrow, MR and K Washburn. 2019. A Review of Field Experiments on the Effect of Forest Bathing on Anxiety and Heart Rate Variability. Glob Adv Health Med. 2019; 8: 2164956119848654. Published online 2019 May 16. doi: 10.1177/2164956119848654 ( PMC6540467/)

14. Miyazaki, Y. 2018. The Japanese Art of Shinrin Yoku, Forest Bathing. 192 pp. Timber Press

15. Cassandra D. Gould van Praag, Sarah N. Garfinkel, Oliver Sparasci, Alex Mees, Andrew O. Philippides, Mark Ware, Cristina Ottaviani, Hugo D. Critchley (2017). Mind-wandering and alterations to default mode network connectivity when listening to naturalistic versus artificial sounds. Scientific Reports, 2017; 7: 45273 DOI: 10.1038/srep45273

16. Luck GW, Davidson P, Boxall D, Smallbone L: 2011. Relations between urban bird and plant communities and human wellbeing and connection to nature. Conservation Biol 2011, 25:816–826.

17. Royal Society for Public Health 2019.

18. Claydon, M. 2019. Ted X Galway, Ireland.

19. Pew Research Center, November 2018, “Teens’ Social Media Habits and Experiences.”

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21. Ratcliffe, E., Gatersleben, B., & Sowden, P. T. 2016. Associations with bird sounds: How do they relate to perceived restorative potential? Journal of Environmental Psychology, 47, 136-144.

22. Buxton RT, M.F. McKenna, D. Mennitt, K. Fristrup, K. Crooks, L. Angeloni, and G. Wittemyer. 2017. Noise pollution is pervasive in U.S. protected areas. Science 05 May 2017: Vol. 356, Issue 6337, pp. 531-533. DOI: 10.1126/science.4783

23. LOSA, G.A. 2016. Fractals and their contribution to biology and medicine. Fellow Member of the European Academy of Sciences, Institute of Scientific Interdisciplinary Studies (ISIS), Locarno, Switzerland.

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25. Brown DK, Barton JL, Gladwell V. 2013 Viewing nature scenes positively affects recovery of autonomic function following acute-mental stress. Environ Sci Technol 2013, 47:5562-9.

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27. Koga K, Iwasaki Y: Psychological and physiological effect in humans of touching plant foliage – using the semantic differential method and cerebral activity as indicators. J Physiol Anthropol 2013, 32:7.

28. Wood, A. PhD. Feet in the Creek. Thesis in prep. University of British Columbia. Personal Communications

29. Jiang, S.Y., A. Ma, and S. Ramachandran. 2018. Int J Mol Sci. 2018 Oct; 19(10): 2966

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