- Lisa McMichael
Thriving with Vitamin N
Picture a pleasant memory set in nature – it can be a walk on the beach with the smell of salty ocean water, the squall of seagulls, and the music of crashing waves, or mountains of beautiful pungent pines with an eagle gliding majestically over her domain in the perfectly cloudless blue sky.
Experiencing nature, or even recalling a positive nature experience, contributes to our overall well-being in astonishing ways. How is it that we are hardwired to benefit from the exposure to nature? What does viewing nature -- just being in nature -- do for us?
We are inextricably linked to nature because we have evolved for the last 2-million years dependent on our surroundings for sustenance. Because nature has fed and sheltered us, our intricate connection and knowledge of nature’s rhythms of life have become our innate survival guide. Nature, literally, formed us. Biophilia is defined as the emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms. Biophilia can be evidenced through our innate fears of spiders and snakes (once a danger to our survival) and conversely by our instinctive calming response to nature’s scenes of water with their message of drink and food needed to survive. By tapping into our hardwired, innate need to connect with our surroundings, we can reap the benefits of health-enriching nature experiences.
Nature As Restoration
The constant demands of our stressful lifestyle can drain our resources and negatively impact our mood. Nature buffers stress and offers to increase our ability to cope with challenges and uplift our mood in striking ways. Simply viewing nature on a screen reduces our stress and anger level, allows us to effectively recover from stressful experiences, and gives us a more positive mental outlook.
In one study, students viewed 50 slides after taking a stressful exam. The students who were shown scenes of nature reported experiencing increased feelings of relaxation and calm. However, those students shown scenes of cities and urban life (traffic, crowds, etc.) reported feeling more angst with a sense of anger and aggression.
Even after just 10 minutes of watching a nature video with trees, flowers, and vegetation, those students recovered more rapidly and completely than the students who watched the urban scenery. Viewing nature has been shown to increase alpha brainwave activity associated with relaxation and decrease heart rate. Studies have shown that even patients in rooms with a view of trees rather than buildings had significantly shorter hospitals stays after a surgery. They also reported fewer post surgical complaints and used less pain medication.
Functional MRI’s indicate brain changes after viewing nature scenes that fire up parts of the brain rich in opioid receptors indicating nature gives us a “natural high.” Nature scenes increase brain areas associated with emotional stability, positive mental outlook, and love.
If just viewing nature in brief snaps significantly impacts our well-being, what are the benefits of having nature around us or, more effectively, immersing ourselves in nature?
Studies have also shown that hospital patients with a dozen plants in the room had lower blood pressure and heart rate, lower pain levels, higher energy levels, lower levels of anxiety, and more positive thoughts than patients in rooms with no plants.
Immersing yourself in nature or forest bathing (Shinrin-Yoku) as it's known in Japan, has yielded evidence of the amazing impact nature has when we are in closer proximity for a longer period of time to nature's healing powers. Research indicates that spending time with trees reduces psychological stress, reduces depressive symptoms and hostility, improves sleep, and lowers the stress hormone cortisol.
Mental fatigue -- easily felt with the bombardment of cognitive tasks and interruptions -- causes one to be more distracted with less cognitive flexibility and produces sub-optimal cognitive performance. Nature exposure produces cognitive restoration that replenishes our mental condition by improving attention, cognitive performance, and memory as well as reducing anger and impulsivity. Nature has an amazing ability to restore our cognitive resources when we are stressed and allows us to enhance our learning and cognitive performance.
Obtaining our “Vitamin N”
Nature exposure is a powerful restorer of our resiliency thus earning the name “vitamin N.” Park RX, founded by physician Robert Zarr, is an organization raising awareness of the health benefits of nature. With a membership of 1,000 physicians, your prescription for many ailments would likely include some level of nature exposure.
But you don’t need a prescription to access nature’s healing. All the benefits of nature are waiting for you to enjoy – free of charge. These are some activities that will get you a good dose of “Vitamin N”.
Add potted plants to your home environment
Take a walk in a nature-rich environment
De-stress by viewing your favorite nature scenes
Play outdoor games in warmer weather
Get outside in the snow in the winter
Take your dog for a walk, and if you don’t have a dog, take your neighbor’s dog for a walk
Kayak or boat on the water
Volunteer for an organization that is committed to nature preservation
Despite our intimate connection and dependency on nature for survival, we continue to pollute mother earth. Global warming is increasing at an alarming rate. Seven to ten million people are estimated to die each year from air pollution alone. De-forestation and ocean devastation (watch Seaspiracy on Netflix) destroys our natural resources. Considering our connection and dependence on nature, as clearly evidenced by the research, we need nature to preserve us, and therefore we need to preserve nature.
An important tool for manifesting your own vibrant life is to connect yourself to the healing benefits of nature. So, invest in measures that sustain our environment in healthy and meaningful ways. Mother nature will thank us by continuing to provide us with her healing elements and sustain us and our future generations.