Nature's Healing Effects
It can be invaluable to explore your relationship to nature and work with nature. Because we evolved to experience nature as our home, it makes sense that being outdoors among the trees, plants, and animals fosters physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
In fact, Richard Louv, author of The Nature Principle and Last Child in the Woods, suggests that our exposure to nature is so important to our overall health that we should think of it as “vitamin N.” Incorporating nature into your life more often, in a variety of ways, may help you improve your health story—and even the overall story of your life.
Carl Jung said that the earth has a soul, and the shamans I have met would agree. Indigenous healers in Peru speak of Pachamama, Mother Earth, as the source of all healing. And within that spiritual entity known as Mother Earth, they say there are entities with consciousness of their own. These spirits include not just human beings but, as psychotherapist Edward Tick, PhD, describes it, “all creatures, natural beings, and processes— animals, plants, stones, clothing, colors, and the weather—have spirits with which we can communicate.”
Whatever your spiritual beliefs and your ideas about shared and individual consciousness, when you reconnect with nature, you might experience that you have a relationship with the consciousness I call Source. You might even shape that relationship to make it a reciprocal one, as you observe and engage nature while it observes and engages you. Some say nature is God’s creation, and others say nature is Spirit expressing itself. Whatever your beliefs about nature and Spirit, we do know that being in nature has many benefits for health and well-being. Working with it actively, using expanded awareness practices, may be especially helpful for improving your health.
Nature’s Recalibrating Effects
Scientists and shamans alike know that all of life is woven into a web of infinite connections, contributing to the larger whole in a system that is complex beyond our imagining. When we sit quietly at the edge of a lake, or hike through a wildflower-strewn meadow, or walk through a cool, dark forest, we quickly become aware of our unity with the natural world. We fall back into natural rhythms—rhythms we are no longer in synch with as a result of living by the clock and spending much of our time in manmade spaces lit by electricity. Nature has a way of recalibrating us and helping us gain a new perspective on our stressors so that they seem less overwhelming.
The Evidence for Nature’s Healing Powers
Many people have intuited that nature has healing powers, but now researchers are discovering more about how our bodies and minds benefit from our interactions with nature. When it comes to scientific and medical research, some of the positive effects of nature are measured by study participants’ self-reporting. Others are measured by lower blood pressure or lower levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. Some studies look at brain activity changes, which show we have a different internal experience when we are exposed to nature. These experiences contribute to better mental and physical health in the short and long term.
A 2007 British study showed a walk in nature reduced depression in 71 percent of the participants. That matches up with Japanese research into the practice of shinrin-yoku, which can be translated as “forest bathing,” or immersion in a wooded environment. Studies have shown that walking in the woods lowers levels of the stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline, boosting immunity and mood. It also reduces heart rate, lowers blood pressure, improves sleep, and increases anticancer protein levels. Eva M. Selhub and Alan C. Logan have pointed out in their book Your Brain on Nature: The Science of Nature’s Influence on Your Health, Happiness and Vitality that, in England and America, the Victorians sent those with “nervous conditions” or tuberculosis to sanitariums. These facilities were typically located in pine forests, as evergreen trees were believed to emit something into the air that promoted healing. As it turns out, these claims were not the mere invention of imaginative promoters of sanitariums. Selhub and Logan note, “Natural chemicals secreted by evergreen trees, collectively known as phytoncide, have also been associated with improvements in the activity of our frontline immune defenders.” The air in natural areas, especially in forests or near moving waters such as rivers, tends to have a very high concentration of negative ions, known to increase levels of the moodboosting neurotransmitter serotonin. These types of ions also are associated with a sense of greater vitality, and they reduce depression, fatigue, and stress. Breathing them in is easy to do when we are outdoors in nature.
Touching soil, or perhaps just being near it and breathing it in to some degree, benefits health, too. An increasing amount of research is showing a connection between microbes, encountered when outdoors, and a healthy gut colony of organisms that contributes to digestive health and even positive moods and protection from depression and anxiety. Dirt puts us in contact with microorganisms that establish their home in our digestive system. As David Perlmutter, MD, wrote in his book Brain Maker: “The microbiome is dynamic. It’s ever-changing in response to our environment—the air we breathe, the people we touch, the drugs we take, the dirt and germs we encounter, the things we consume, and even the thoughts we have. Just as food gives our bodies information, so does our gut bacteria speak to our DNA, our biology, and ultimately, our longevity.” A healthy colony of microbes in our gut serves to promote our immunity as well as healthy cognitive abilities and emotional well-being. Gardening is one outdoor activity known to have many health benefits, including reduction of physical pain and stress, improved mental wellness, increased physical fitness, increased social contact and sense of community, and greater consumption of fruits and vegetables. In a garden, you are exposed to sunlight, needed for the production of vitamin D and serotonin. Both affect mood, reducing the risk of depression. Most of our serotonin, a neurotransmitter that contributes to a sense of contentment and happiness, is produced not in the brain, where it is used, but in our digestive system, where microorganisms from the environment live. It makes sense that being in the sunlight, touching dirt, and getting physical activity could improve depression and anxiety. Then too, planting, weeding, and harvesting vegetables in a garden offers the health benefit of greater accessibility to foods known to promote health.
Excerpted from Change the Story of Your Health ©2017, by Carl Greer, with permission of Findhorn Press.
Carl Greer, PhD, PsyD, is a practicing clinical psychologist, Jungian analyst, and shamanic practitioner. He teaches at the C.G. Jung Institute of Chicago and is on staff at the Replogle Center for Counseling and Well-being, and is the bestselling author of Change Your Story, Change your Life. Visit CarlGreer.com.