Your Brain on Nature

Nature has a profound impact on your brain, your behavior and your ability to connect with others. Being immersed in nature or simply viewing a nature setting yields benefits for your health. We are drawn to nature, and it can impact our stress, mood, nervous system, immune system, blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, perception of pain, physical healing, creativity, influence some common disease states and more.

The field of ecopsychology explores the beneficial impact of exposure to the natural world and its relationship on health and well-being. As the spring bloom is occurring in many parts of the United States, including Northeast Ohio, may we take time to notice our immediate surroundings.

“Nature itself is the best physician.” Ancient physician and sage Hippocrates emphasized holistic treatments such as exercising in nature to restore the body’s natural harmony. Chinese Taoists over 2,000 years ago created gardens and greenhouses because they believed that their presence was beneficial to human health. Your relationship to nature and experiences within nature offer various aspects of healing to mind, body and spirit. There are many other roots in history that explore the interrelationship of nature, health and wellness. Research has only further documented nature’s impact on health in a variety of ways (more than we can cover in this blog!).

Indoors vs. Outdoors
Over the years, we have become more distanced from nature through a variety of changes in our lifestyle, the way in which we live our modern lives. On average, we spend 93% of our time indoors! (93% = 86% of the time in buildings and 6% in automobiles) The National Human Activity Pattern Survey, reports that only 7% of our time is spent outdoors. This would amount to less than half of one day per week spent outside.

How much time should we spend outside?
In 2019, a hallmark study of nearly 20,000 people found that spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature was associated with good health and well-being. The study examined different time intervals in nature, but found that spending two hours per week outdoors was the “sweet spot” for an effect on self-reported health and subjective well-being.

The 20-5-3 rule also offers some guidance for optimal health. This rule offers benefits from short-term exposure in nature to longer, immersive experiences in nature.

20 = the number of minutes we should spend outdoors in nature at least 3 days per week. This has been linked to a reduction in stress hormones, as well as a boost in cognition and memory… in just 20 minutes!

5 = the minimum number of hours each month that should be spent immersed in a semi-wild nature environment (wilder spaces likely offer more fractals).

3 = the number of days one should spend “off-grid” and “unplugged” in nature. This has been linked to a 50% boost in creativity!

Fractals are the physical patterns and geometric shapes found within various elements of nature, such as a snowflake, the veins in a leaf and the root structure of trees. Fractals are the basic structures and building blocks that produce health effects for our health and wellbeing. Have you noticed other fractal patterns in nature? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

Vitamin D
Our decreased outdoor activity is one reason people may be deficient in Vitamin D among other individualized reasons. On average, over 40% of adults are deficient in Vitamin D in the United States. For many of us located in Northeast Ohio and its broader region, our Vitamin D levels may be low due to our geographic area and lack of access to sunlight on a consistent basis. Sun exposure, especially during midday in the summer, is a natural way that we can manufacture our own Vitamin D. (Be sure to consult with your health care provider regarding your personal Vitamin D level and what options might be best for your circumstances.)

Vitamin N
Vitamin N (nature) was coined by author Richard Louv. He discussed how nature is important for human health and how it may improve of physical and mental health. He also puts forth the notion of “nature deficient disorder” in reference to the physiological, psychological, and cognitive consequences of being isolated from nature. In essence, the more we become reliant on technology, the more nature we need. Across cultures, we are hardwired for an exposure to the natural outdoors. Nature brings our senses alive, and it heals.

Tips to Boost Your Vitamin N

  1. Take a quick brain-break outdoors. Look up at the sun and take time to notice its warmth on your face, your arms and body. Nature offers many meditative benefits and our ability to be present in nature gives us a boost. As author Richard Louv states, “Let’s G.O.!” meaning “Let’s Get Outdoors!”
  2. Go on an awe walkAn awe walk can help you get the best out of your walk. Once a week, aim to have an experience of “awe” where you shift your attention away from yourself to appreciate the wonder and beauty in your immediate surroundings. The physical vastness and novelty of the outdoors can spark awe by walking in the woods or taking time to notice the tall trees on your walk. It is best to go on an awe walk in a new place or location so there is a novel environment for you to explore. Simply walk in a light to moderate pace (no speed walking or jogging) and take in your surroundings; awe and marvel at what is around you. Enjoy your stroll and be sure to unplug from devices to fully immerse yourself in nature.
  3. Take a forest bath. This practice comes from Japan, which means “bathing” in the forest atmosphere while experiencing the forest immersion experience through your senses (meditative benefits). We simply aim to connect in nature, in the forest or among trees, through our multiple senses — sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch — to engage our state of mind. We can walk slowly in nature or sit still to get a forest bath. Some people incorporate a variety of movement techniques (Qigong, Tai Chi, yoga), breathing exercises, or nature art (more on this in a future blog!) as part of their forest bath. Luckily, you can forest bathe anywhere, hot or cold, rain or shine; it is up to you.

I hope this blog imparted some of the basics of how nature impacts your health, wellness and brain; there is so much more to explore! May you take time to notice the fractal patterns within nature that offer us many healing benefits. I hope this encourages you to take time to connect with nature — in person, via images or through a window. Be in awe of your nature surroundings and involve your multiple senses. Off you G.O.— Get Outdoors!

In brain health & wellness,

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