Hi everyone and happy holidays – Happy New Year!! It’s the summer holidays here in Australia, and it’s a time of year that sees many of us able to enjoy some more time off – and we’ve got beautiful weather, which makes for additional encouragement to get outside. Most of us have observed how amazing we feel after a day at the beach, or camping, going bush or hiking through forests – but the benefits are not limited to just lifting our mood. Time in nature has proven health benefits, with lots of exciting research and the adoption of progressive medical practices around the world. So let’s get into it!
The past several hundred years or so have seen greater and greater technological advancements that have offered many undoubted benefits. But at the same time, these same advancements have created a greater degree of separation between us and the natural world around us – and its cycles and seasons. We humans evolved from a close relationship with nature, and despite the shiny, technologically-advanced modern lives that we lead, we still remain connected to – and affected by – Mother Nature and her cycles. For example, our biochemistry fluctuates with the diurnal rhythms of light, between night and day, and the weather has been shown to have an impact on pain levels. For example, a recent study by scientists at the University of Manchester looked at the impact of the weather on arthritis (and other pain conditions) with their excellently named app, “Cloudy with a chance of pain”. On a side note, Chinese Medicine has long referred to arthritis and other similar pain conditions as “Damp Obstruction” or “Cold Obstruction”, which relates with the contemporary findings of a greater incidence of these pain patterns in damp weather – or cold weather for some people. This understanding of our interdependence on, and our connectedness with, nature is at the foundation of Chinese Medicine philosophy. We’re all connected and we impact each other. So it’s exciting to see this recognized in research, and to see it carried through into prescribing practices.
One place where this is happening is in Scotland, where GPs, since last year have been able to start prescribing time in nature to their patients. They do this in an effort to reduce blood pressure, anxiety and to increase happiness for those living with diabetes and mental illness, stress and heart disease and so on. What the doctors can actually do is issue patients with a little brochure that has some great connecting-with-nature practices: these are seasonal practices that encourage the patients to get out there and just connect with the seasons and cycles of nature, and the magic of nature that’s all around us. I’ve included the link to the brochure in my show notes, but there’s some really awesome seasonal activities like, making beach art from natural materials, or borrow a dog and take it for a walk, touch the sea, make a bug hotel, bury your face in the grass, lots of beautiful ideas! Appreciate a cloud, talk to a pony and feed the birds in your garden – all activities that encourage us to slow down, take a breath and just appreciate the natural beauty that surrounds us. This exciting directive builds on earlier work and studies throughout the world, for example, some work in America that showed that patients recovering from surgery recovered faster and went home quicker if they had a view of trees outside their window. Other similar studies showed that a reduction in pain was available to patients from not only looking at real life nature, but also nature videos and pictures. And it’s not just nature scenery that was shown to have a positive effect – other studies looked at exposure to daylight, and found that exposure to daylight resulted in less pain, less stress and decreased use of pain medications than patients who didn’t have exposure to natural light. There’s also some preliminary work looking at the beneficial effects of hospital gardens and their ability to alleviate stress in both patients and their families. So it’s great to see that we’re starting to incorporate the magic and powerful benefits of nature into contemporary medical practice.
One place where nature as medicine has been very enthusiastically embraced is Japan, where the preventative health practice of shinrin-yoku – or forest bathing – is widely practiced. Forest bathing is so accepted in the mainstream that some companies even use it for employee health care. Shinrin-yoku practice involves time in nature, and slowing down to appreciate and connect with the beauty at our fingertips, much like the Scottish prescription booklet. There’s been quite a comprehensive body of research surrounding the measurable benefits of forest bathing on mind and body. And the list of benefits is quite amazing! The various scientists found that spending time in forest environments led to lower concentrations of cortisol, which is one of our stress hormones; it could lead to a lower pulse rate and lower blood pressure; it increased parasympathetic activity.
The parasympathetic nervous system is our rest-and-digest system – as opposed to the sympathetic, which is fight-or-flight, where we pump out those stress hormones. When we’re in parasympathetic mode, or rest-digest-repair-and-heal mode, that’s where the healing and repair of our tissue can happen. It’s a very potent state to be in for healing, and people in forest environments were seen to have greater parasympathetic nerve activity – and lower sympathetic activity – than those living in city environments. The research suggests that this occurs due to the activity of wood essential oils, which are called phytoncides – and interestingly, many of these chemical compounds are found in many Chinese herbal medicines! These phytoncides, or wood essential oils, were found to be beneficial for human endocrine and immune systems, as measured by the levels of stress hormones and dopamine levels. They were also found to bump up the activity of our natural killer cells and various immune markers, and all of these combined to have a beneficial effect on our immune function. These findings prompted the researchers to ask further questions, such as given this propensity to boost our immune function, could time in forests also have a beneficial effect for cancer patients or in cancer prevention? And they found that people living in areas of higher forest coverage had better cancer mortality outcomes, so lower cancer mortality rates, the greater the density of forest that they were living in. And the good news is that we don’t just have to be living in the forest. These same researchers also went on to discover that the benefits of the anti-cancer proteins that were produced from time in nature lasted more than seven days – and even up to 30 days after time in nature. So even a monthly trip for a bush walk, or to sit by the beach, or spend a day in the botanical gardens, can confer benefits.
The idea of forest cures, or forest medicine, was also seen in the mid to late 1800s in both Europe and America, where various doctors set up health retreats in pine forests in Germany and in the forests of New York. And they reported on the benefits of time in these pine forests for patients with tuberculosis. Previously it was believed that a dry environment would be beneficial for quicker healing from tuberculosis, but they found that despite the high moisture content of the forest, patients would heal faster there and they attributed that to potential volatile compounds in the air, which are these wood essential oils, these phytoncides that we’re learning about in the latest research.
Now luckily for us here in Australia in summer, it’s not just forests that have these myriad health benefits, but also beaches, and just time barefoot in nature. The practice of being barefoot in nature is called grounding, or earthing, and it’s an area of practice that’s been around for quite some time, but the research on it is still emerging and still new. Yet, despite that we’re seeing some really positive results and we’re seeing results similar to the forest bathing: that time spent barefoot in nature, or walking on the beach, and even soaking in the ocean can lead to health benefits such as lower stress and better nervous system regulation – again, that increased parasympathetic tone versus sympathetic (or rest-and-digest versus fight-or-flight) – decreased inflammation, reduction of pain, better sleep, a thinning of any over-coagulated blood,(for better blood flow). It was shown to be beneficial for many common health disorders, like cardiovascular disease, autoimmune conditions like lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis. Other research has shown that grounding can alter the numbers of circulating immune cells as well as different immune markers and various chemical factors related to inflammation.
The scientific basis behind grounding, or earthing, is that connecting barefoot with the earth connects us with the Earth’s electrons. Because humans are made of a very large percentage of water, and water conducts energy, we (throughout the course of the day and throughout the course of our lives) can not only accumulate a charge in our bodies, but even just the processes of life can lead to the production of molecules called free radicals. Free radicals lack electrons, which means that they’re positively charged, so spending time connecting to the earth, barefoot or sitting on the earth actually allows us contact, or exchange, with the Earth’s electrons – it allows us to revert to a more neutral charge by absorbing those electrons from the earth.
As the early research on grounding and earthing shows that it can reduce inflammation, it has been enthusiastically adopted by various athletes – supposedly many athletes on the Tour de France use it, even supposedly Lance Armstrong; there’s Olympic swimmers and runners and triathletes that use earthing technology. And recently, locally, even the New South Wales State of Origin team was using it in their training and recovery.
For best results, the skin should be in direct contact with earth, or rock, or water. And luckily for us here in Australia, the beach – and the ocean – is probably one of the best places to do earthing because saltwater and sand are both very highly conductive, and seawater has the added benefit of being high in magnesium. So we’re getting a double benefit there from soaking in the sea!
Another way that we can balance our charge thanks to nature is by exposing ourselves to areas high in negative ions. Again, these ions have a negative charge, so they’ll balance out any excessive positive charge that we might be carrying around. Negative ions hang out in places like waterfalls, around the surf, at the beach and also after a storm – all places that we are somehow intrinsically drawn to, and that we feel like we can breathe deeper and relax at. There’s been some great research into this area as well.
Some of the early pioneering work in this area was done by Dr Hansell in the early 1900s, or early to mid 1900s. He was a research engineer and he found that when he was working with positive and negative ions, when he was pumping out a lot of positive ions, his colleague would feel much worse and crankier than when he was pumping out negative ions. This led Dr Hansell to do some work into negative ions and Seasonally Affective Disorder (SAD), and some more recent research looked at using negative ions for management of chronic depression – and also looked at bright light for management of chronic depression. They found that both modalities were beneficial in improving outcomes for people affected by chronic depression – another reason to get outside, enjoy some sunlight, get by the beach or by lakes or waterfalls, get your feet out onto the grass.
One of the scientists that conducted a lot of the research into the forest bathing that mentioned earlier, Dr Qing Li was asked for his recommendations on how to incorporate the benefits of Mother Nature’s medicine into everyday life. He suggested that if you have time for vacation, choose a natural area; once a week visit a park; gardening is good for reconnecting with nature; on urban walks, try to walk under trees, go to quiet places and go to places near water – all of these confer the benefits of forest bathing and exposure to negative ions as well.
We’re very fortunate here in Australia that even in more built up areas, we still have access to open spaces and green spaces. So it’s quite accessible to most of us. And on that note, I’m going to keep this episode a little bit shorter because it’s time for me to go hit the beach and get my dose of nature’s medicine! I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback and any questions that you might like me to cover in future episodes. And in the meantime, I’ll leave you to get outside and enjoy some nature time!
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