If you’ve ever stepped outside for a walk or some sunshine after a tough day, you know how nature has a way of calming you. But nature can do much more than just help clear your mind and promote relaxation; it could possibly even reduce the symptoms of depression, protect your body against cancer, and reboot your immune system. So the next time you’re out in the woods, at the beach, or walking around the neighborhood, breathe deeply and take it all in—for your mental and physical health.
“When we get to nature, our health improves,” says Dr. Aaron Michelfelder of Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. “Our stress hormones rise all day long in our bloodstream and taking even a few moments while walking to reconnect with our inner thoughts and to check in with our body will lower those damaging stress hormones. Walking with our family or friends is also a great way to lower our blood pressure and make us happier.”
Researchers in Japan have found that walking in the woods could even fight cancer. It’s the air-sharing we do with plants when we’re out there that could help convey these important benefits. Actually, scientists in Japan have been reporting on the immunopotentiating and stress-relieving benefits of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, since 1982, but only recently has the trend crossed the ocean.
In one of the Japanese studies, researchers found that after a three day and two night trip of forest bathing, 11 of 12 subjects showed increases in natural-killer cell activity – powerful lymphocytes known to fight off infection and halt cancer growth. The average increase was about 50%
Phytoncides emitted from plants help protect them from insects and decay. When we breathe them in, our immune function is boosted with the increase in natural “killer” cells that work to protect us.
“When we walk in a forest or park, our levels bof white blood cells increase and it also lowers our pulse rate, blood pressure and level of the stress hormone cortisol,” adds Michelfelder.
Stress doesn’t only feel bad, it can make us sick, weakening our immune systems, causing disruptions in sleep, and even spurring us toward unhealthy food choices. Indeed, stress is a primary contributing factor to overall disease development.
In addition to a walk in the woods, you can further reduce stress and improve immune function through activities like meditation, spending time with friends, exercising, and reducing your consumption of highly processed foods.
Some studies have even linked negative thoughts to suppressed immune function. Depressed and pessimistic people are often less healthy than those glass-half-full types. So as you walk through the woods, be sure to focus on the good rather than the bad.