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The healing power of Nature

Maybe you already know it. After a day on the beach, or by the lake, hiking through the woods or camping in the great outdoors, you just feel better. Maybe you’re in a better mood. Maybe you have more energy. Maybe you notice that after a day outside, you sleep through the night and wake up well-rested. What you may not know is why that’s so. Here’s a run down on the science behind Nature therapy.

Get grounded

Mounting evidence suggests that Mother Earth has the most healing touch of all. Along with being a conductor of electricity, the surface of the Earth produces a limitless supply of free or mobile electrons. Its supply of electrons is replenished by the atmospheric electrical circuit.

Direct contact with the Earth provides you with an influx of free electrons that may play a role in neutralizing free radicals. Your body could also align with the electrical potential of the Earth, which would help to stabilize the electrical environment of all of your organs, tissues, and cells. Research also suggests that this recalibration may help to set the biological clocks that regulate diurnal (daily) body rhythms, including the sleep-wake cycle.

When humans lived more inline with Nature – sleeping on the ground, walking barefoot or wearing hides for foot-coverings rather than non-conductive rubber soled shoes – we got a daily dose of Earth’s healing vibes. In our fast-paced, virtual lifestyles, we’ve lost contact with this powerful healing potential.

First aid from the ground up

Earthing (also known as grounding) refers to contact with the Earth’s surface electrons. Research evidence suggests that contact with the Earth may be a simple, natural, and effective strategy to improve chronic stress, inflammation, pain, poor sleep, heart-beat regularity, and many common health disorders, including cardiovascular disease.[1]

Grounding may also help to keep bones strong. In one study, grounding during a single night of sleep lead to significant positive changes in concentrations of minerals and electrolytes in the blood, including iron, ionized calcium, inorganic phosphorus, sodium, potassium, and magnesium, along with reduced excretion of calcium and phosphorus. Grounding for one night, then, may improve bone health and reduce primary indicators of osteoporosis.[2]

Barefoot healing

Aim to rest your bare feet on the grass, sand or garden bed daily while the weather allows. Take your lunch break outside and sit on the ground as you eat your meal. Enjoy an afternoon siesta on a blanket in the backyard. Perhaps counter-intuitively, wading in a lake or river and swimming in the ocean are also “grounding” activities.

Forest therapy

There may still be snow on the ground for a few weeks yet where you live, but that doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from getting outside – even with your boots on. The traditional Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku (also known as forest bathing) has also been found in studies to provide an apothecary of health benefits, including therapeutic effects on immune system function, cardiovascular health, and respiratory fitness as well as providing support for stress, anxiety and depression.

Forest bathing requires only that you are willing to get into greenspace and totally immerse all your senses in the experience.[3] Enjoy a leisurely stroll in a local woods. Take notice of the sights, sounds and smells that surround you.

Some of the forest-healing benefits may, in fact, come from phytoncides, which are found in oils and compounds created by conifers to protect themselves from microbes and pathogens. In other words, that beautiful natural pine scent we equate with being in the forest provides an aromatherapy health boost! Research suggests that breathing in these phytoncides boosts the level of natural killer (NK) cells in our blood.[4] NK cells are immune cells responsible for protecting you from invading germs and viruses.

Best of all, you don’t have to linger in the woods for all that long to get results. For example, one small study of men and women found an overall decrease in heart rate after one day of a forest therapy program.

Fortunately, you aren’t out of luck if you live in a metropolitan area. Canadian research used satellite imagery to view neighbourhoods and found that people who live in areas with more trees reported fewer cardiometabolic conditions than people who have fewer trees on their block. If you’re not on a tree-lined street, consider approaching your city’s planning department about amping-up the planting.

Forage for health

Nothing beats the surprise discovery of a ripe wild raspberry patch when you’re out and about in the woods. Foraging for wild plant materials including flowers, berries, nuts and fungi can give added “purpose” to your outing – and double-up your potential health benefits.[5] Before you head out, research what treasures are in season where you live and be sure to bring a carrier for your bounty. In Canada, you are likely to find a variety of berries, fruits like paw paw, and mushrooms like lion’s mane (a tasty selection with cognitive health benefits) or turkey tail (a powerful immune booster that’s suitable for tea).

Remember the cardinal rules of foraging: Do as little damage as possible. Never take more than you can use, and always leave enough behind so it can recover. If you are foraging for edibles or herbs for medicines, triple-check that your harvest is safe to eat.

Sunkissed

We’ve heard an awful lot about the damaging effects of sun exposure, yet data suggests that excessive ultraviolet light (UV) accounts for only 0.1% of global disease burden, most notably in the form of melanoma.[6] On the other hand, low exposure to UV rays has been linked to major disorders of the musculoskeletal system, a potential increase in various autoimmune diseases and life-threatening cancers.

The most significant benefit of sunlight is its ability to boost vitamin D production, particularly as there are few food sources of this nutrient. Vitamin D is produced in the skin in response to the direct touch of UVB rays. D production is blocked by clothing, sun-protection creams, excess body fat and skin pigment. For light skins covered by a bathing suit, half-an hour of daily exposure initiates the release of 50,000 IU of vitamin D within 24 hours. After the same exposure, tanned skin would release 20,000–30,000 IU and 8,000–10,000 IU in dark-skinned people.5

Don’t be afraid of the sun. Get your dose in the morning before rays become too intense to avoid risk of sunburn.

Gardening goodness

There are plenty of benefits from getting out in the garden. Not only does gardening give you an opportunity for grounding and soaking up some UV rays, it provides physical activity as well. Along with increasing dexterity as you reach and stretch, gardening helps to build strength. Digging and raking are also good aerobic activities as well. For urban-dwellers, community gardening helps to nurture social well-being.[7]

Naturally-inclined  

Our instinctive pull toward the great outdoors is so powerful that simply looking at pictures of garden landscapes in one study helped to reduce negative mood states, including anger, anxiety, confusion, fatigue, and stress in participants.[8]

When Nature calls, give in to the temptation. You’ll feel better for it.

Lisa Petty, PhD is Education Manager at Optimi. She also digs barefoot gardening. Learn more here.

REFERENCES

[1] Sokal, P., & Sokal, K. (2011). The neuromodulative role of earthing. Medical Hypotheses, 77(5), 824–826. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2011.07.046

[2] Chevalier, G., Sinatra, S. T., Oschman, J. L., Sokal, K., & Sokal, P. (2012). Earthing: Health Implications of Reconnecting the Human Body to the Earth’s Surface Electrons. Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 2012, 291541–291548. https://doi.org/10.1155/2012/291541

[3] Hansen, M. M., Jones, R., & Tocchini, K. (2017). Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing) and Nature Therapy: A State-of-the-Art Review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14(8), 851–. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph14080851

[4] Li, Q., Kobayashi, M., Wakayama, Y., Inagaki, H., Katsumata, M., Hirata, Y., … Miyazaki, Y. (2009). Effect of Phytoncide from Trees on Human Natural Killer Cell Function. International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology, 22(4), 951–959. https://doi.org/10.1177/039463200902200410

[5] Svizzero, S. (2016). Foraging Wild Resources: Evolving Goals of an Ubiquitous Human Behavior. Anthropology News, 4(1). https://doi.org/10.4172/2332-0915.1000161 

[6] Mead M. N. (2008). Benefits of sunlight: a bright spot for human health. Environmental health perspectives116(4), A160–A167. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.116-a160

[7] Thompson R. (2018). Gardening for health: a regular dose of gardening. Clinical medicine (London, England)18(3), 201–205. https://doi.org/10.7861/clinmedicine.18-3-201

[8] Lee, J. (2017). Experimental Study on the Health Benefits of Garden Landscape. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14(7), 829–. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph14070829