In my last post, and probably others, I’ve mentioned how being in nature restores me. Clearly I’m not the only one since the effects of being in nature are now being studied and written about. As more and more of us are trapped in cities, leaders have figured out that green spaces will keep some people in better spirits by reducing stress. Vacant lots are becoming community gardens. It’s a welcome change.
Here in the sticks, nature is in my backyard quite literally so why do I still need to leave the house? Does it benefit me? Does it benefit anyone?
A resounding yes from pretty much anyone who loves to hike or kayak or fish a quiet stream. Of course up until now it’s all been anecdotally expressed. We go out and our worries seem to recede for a while as we enjoy a little peace and quiet. That’s always been pretty clear, but some folks want to know what that time is doing to our brains. How do trees make us feel better? Basically by changing the chemistry in our brains.
And, let’s face it, our entire perception of the world is chemistry in our brains so this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Here are the biggest benefits –
Lowered blood pressure
People are always on you to keep your blood pressure down. But why? What’s so bad about high blood pressure? Well it apparently puts too much stress on the heart and other blood vessels. If those get weak it can lead to heart attack. It’s also been linked to forms of dementia and kidney disease. So yeah, it’s bad. I guess going for a walk in the woods is better than taking pills. Less expensive, too.
Reduced cortisol and other stress-induced hormones
Cortisol is the hormone that activates your fight or flight response. Adrenaline is the one that kick starts a galvanic response to something scary. Important for sure, but we don’t want this stuff kicking around at high levels all the time. We all know what a shot of adrenaline feels like (like when you catch yourself just as you’re going to fall down the stairs). Can you imagine feeling like that all the time? Ugh. Cortisol increases glucose levels in the blood and ups heart rate and blood pressure for a long term get away (from say, a slavering bug-blatter beast). Great while it’s needed, but not good for a constant state even in low levels.
Improved cell health (natural killer activity – really!)
Now here’s where it gets really interesting. NKs are a type of cell in the immune system that limits the growth of some types of tumors and also infections. They also regulate contact and exchange between other types of cells such as T-cells which are also part of the immune system. People who spend time in nature have more NK activity in the body and the NK cells themselves are more productive. Wow. Who wouldn’t want this?
Better mental acuity
Modern life, especially city life, is full of things that take mental processing – lights, movement, signs, people, unending noise, cell phones, planes, trains and automobiles. It all has to be taken in and dealt with and boy is it tiring. Getting away from that (and leaving your phone in your pack turned off) reduces the amount of work your brain has to do on a minute-by-minute basis leaving you more able to handle focused tasks when you need to. Some people have their best ideas in the shower and hiking is kind of like that. It literally gives your brain a break; a vacation.
So in this time of uncertainty with the spread of the COVID-19 virus with its quarantine and travel restrictions, maybe going into nature alone is the only thing we have going for us. The thing is, it was going for us all along.