Nature and wellbeing
During the first lockdown being allowed to go outside once a day became an essential part of getting through the day for me. ONS data reported that 52% also found that exercising outside helped them cope in the lockdown. But it is not just exercising that brings benefits.
Nature has a significant impact on health. Studies have identified the overall health effects of nature on a variety of health outcomes including physical, mental, social, and cognitive health. Some health care providers have started recommending dosages of nature exposure to clients, as an alternative or addition to prescribing pharmaceuticals.
Studies have looked the mental health benefits of being in nature for children and teenagers (1). Time spent in nature has the potential to have positive effects on a child’s mental health. Including emotional, psychological and social well-being and affects how they reach developmental milestones, learn healthy social skills, develop positive family and peer relationships, develop a sense of identity, positive self-esteem and learn resilience and to cope with stress.
A review of research (2) suggested that use of, and proximity to, green space by children is linked to:
- increased emotional wellbeing,
- decreased stress,
- reduced depressive symptoms,
- lower behavioural problems; and
- enhanced attention and improved long-term memory
- reduced Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) symptoms, and improved behaviour.
In addition to the health benefits, spending time together outside can promote stronger parent-child attachments, teach children that natural resources are not limitless and inspire them to protect our environment.
So, with evidence that time in nature is good for us all, the question is- what to do when you are outside? With the arrival of summer and warmer weather there are more opportunities to spend more time outdoors. To really reap the benefits, it’s important to take time to reflect on our surroundings and explore with all of the senses. By focusing on the senses, we can direct our thoughts away from making judgements and just appreciate being in the moment. This is a key aspect of ‘mindfulness’ (a way of directing non-judgemental awareness towards our thoughts, feelings, environment and body) has been found to reduce feelings of stress, and increase feelings of self-compassion and empathy.
Using the senses
Listen– not just to birds, but to grasshoppers and crickets in the grasses as they make their ‘song’ by rubbing legs and/or wings together.
Smell – the scent of freshly cut grass, barbeques in the garden or at the park.
Taste – summer berries, home grown tomatoes. It can be very satisfying to grow your own food. Small gardens and even balconies can be enough space to grow food, such as tomatoes or strawberries. If you don’t have access to a garden, you could plant salad leaves or herbs in a window box or go fruit picking.
See– look carefully at what is around you and learn more about the world. Seek is an app designed by iNaturalist with WWF – it uses photos you take on your phone to help you identify plants and animals you find. Picture this plant identifier app is another tool to help you discover more about nature.
Touch– “earthing,” is a scientifically-researched practice showing a number of health advantages, such as increasing antioxidants, reducing inflammation, and improving sleep (3). “Earthing” means walking barefoot on soil, grass, or sand (i.e. any natural surface). Studies show that health benefits come from the relationship between our bodies and the electrons in the earth. The planet has its own natural charge, and being in direct contact with it can draw upon these electrons and improve health (Journal of Environmental and Public Health) .Other studies have found that earthing changed the electrical activity in the brain, and also moderated heart rate variability, improved glucose regulation, reduced stress and supported immune function.
An investigation, (published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine), found that earthing increases the surface charge of red blood cells. This helps to reduce cells clumping, which can decrease blood viscosity. High viscosity is a significant factor in heart disease, (which is why so many people take blood thinning aspirin each day to improve their heart health). The same journal found that earthing may help regulate both the endocrine and nervous systems. (NB- you should always be aware of your surroundings and make sure it’s safe for you to walk barefoot e.g., the terrain isn’t sharp / there is not the potential to injure your feet).
Gardening offers many opportunities to connect with nature and engage all the senses. A lesser-known advantage is from the soil itself. Did you know that there’s a natural antidepressant in soil? Mycobacterium vaccae has been found to mirror the effect on neurons that drugs like Prozac provide (4). The bacterium is found in soil and may stimulate serotonin production, which makes you relaxed and happier. Studies were conducted on cancer patients and they reported a better quality of life and less stress. Lack of serotonin has been linked to depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and bipolar problems. The bacterium appears to be a natural antidepressant in soil and has no adverse health effects. These antidepressant microbes in soil may be as easy to use as just playing in the dirt. Gardeners inhale the bacteria, have topical contact with it, and get it into their bloodstreams when there is a cut or other pathway for infection. There are indications that the natural effects of the soil bacteria antidepressant can be felt for up to 3 weeks. So, to boost your mood maybe it’s time to get out and play in the dirt!
- Norwood, M. F., Lakhani, A., Fullagar, S., Maujean, A., Downes, M., Byrne, J. Kendall, E. (2019). A narrative and systematic review of the behavioural, cognitive and emotional effects of passive nature exposure on young people: Evidence for prescribing change. Landscape and Urban Planning, 189, 71-79.
- Suzanne Tillmann,Danielle Tobin,William Avison,Jason Gilliland; Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. Oct 1, 2018
- Functional Medicine Doctor By Isaac Eliaz, M.D., M.S., LAc March 26, 2020
- Gardening Know How: Antidepressant Microbes In Soil: How Dirt Makes You Happy https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/garden-how-to/soil-fertilizers/antidepressant-microbes-soil.htm
Connecting with Nature is the theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week on 10-16 May 2021 – with the aim to inspire more people to connect with nature and notice the impact that this connection can have for their mental health.
Written by Karen Beresford who is our Childcare Resource Associate at Your Employee Wellbeing
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