The Healing Power of Nature

I have a bit of a love affair with nature.  One of my favourite pastimes is canoe treks in the remote wildnesses, whether summer or fall.  (I let the bugs have full reign of the forest in the springtime).   Awakening in the early morning to a soft mist rising as the tree-line reflects its vibrancy in the glass stillness of the lake in front of me creates a deep calm in my soul.  No sounds of trucks.  No screeching breaks.  Not even the the echo of people walking by.   I also find something so soothing about the calls of the loons echoing across the water when the sun is setting, as the wind blows gently across my sun-kissed skin.

My relationship with nature has been truly healing, and there are times when I crave full emersion.   In my struggles with sleep, I often found deep levels of rest nestled amongst the trees.  In my struggle to relax my body and slow my mind, I often found calmness sitting around the campfire, as the stars twinkle above me.

In today’s society, we are moving further and further away from our connection with nature. We drive in vehicles instead of traveling outside, a large proportion of the population spends the majority of their work-day indoors, and access to greenspace in the city can be a trek to get too.

However, nature holds an essential key to our health. Improved air quality, social opportunity (i.e. shared community gardens, group hikes) the joy brought with experiencing incredible beauty and the physical activity component make being outdoors an excellent source of healing.  (To read more about nature’s pathways to healing, click here.)

In fact, time in nature is being prescribed as an essential component of healing.  Forest bathing, otherwise known as nature therapy or Shinrin-yoku, was introduced in Japan as part of a national public health program in the early 1980s. Forest bathing is essentially exactly what you think it is – spending time in nature or greenspaces.  In South Korea, government sponsored programs for firefighters suffering from PTDS includes an outdoor component.  In countries like Australia and Sweden, Kindergarten takes place outside all year round (known as forest kindergarten).

Not surprisingly, scientific research does back up the healing powers of nature.  Research on forest bathing has demonstrated that it can improve natural killer cell activity (NK) and reduce stress hormone levels. Another study found that forest environments result in decreased cortisol levels, lower blood pressure, and increased parasympathetic activation (opposite to fight/flight system).

Grounding (earthing), which is standing barefoot or connecting our skin to the earth, has also been shown to have incredible healing effects. It has a profound impact on inflammation, increased wound healing and improved sleep quality.  It has been proposed that when barefoot, the electrons from the earth pass through the collagen matrix (essentially our skin) and act as antioxidants, neutralizing free radicals.  In one study, grounding has been shown to decrease reported pain levels, and had fewer circulating neutrophils and lymphocytes.   To read more about grounding, check out this paper here.

Read my one of my favourite National Geographic Articles on nature and the brain here.

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