Was it wrong of me to be envious of the blackbird, as I stood under the beach tree in the garden listening to him sing? When he flew away, I was jealous. He had his freedom and I, in lockdown, did not. In some ways, I thought it ironic that nature benefits in this time and can continue its natural rhythms and patterns. However, we are held in place by a virus that, perhaps, our exploitation of nature created – a virus that is taking a heavy toll on those with ‘modern’ 21st century diseases, diseases that their roots in low-level chronic inflammation.
Many scientists suggest that one of the biggest health challenges faced by those in the West is the increase in chronic low levels of inflammation in the human body. Chronic low-level inflammation drives the body’s autoimmune defence systems to stay on high alert, leading to increases in late-onset diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and mental health problems. It is caused as our bodies try to manage the effects of unhealthy habits characterised by much of modern life, for example, a sugar-filled diet, high levels of stress, a sedentary indoor lifestyle and pollution. Seeing images of pollution-free cities and people desperate to get outside, perhaps now it is a good time to re-evaluate our relationship with nature.
How can Nature be of benefit?
So how can we reduce the damaging habits of modern-day life and live longer, healthier, happier lives? I believe that in looking and engaging with nature we can find an answer. The following are the benefits that nature has been shown to provide.
Nature benefits immunity.
Scientists have shown that spending time in woodlands supports the body’s immune response. Two hours of Forest Bathing, a Japanese technique for spending purposeful time in forests, has demonstrated the ability to soothe inflammation levels and increase levels of natural killer cells in the body that help to fight cancer. Trees release a plant chemical called phytoncides, which they use to protect themselves from bacteria, insects and fungi. Phytoncides have been shown to have a benefit to humans.
Nature benefits mood and mental function
Walking in forests has long been known to make us feel happier, which scientists have shown is due to a common and harmless bacterium found in the soil. This could go some way to explaining the feelings of pleasure that people get from working in a garden or allotment. They are breathing in the bacteria and it is having a positive effect on their mood. Furthermore, the quality of air and the natural chemicals emitted by certain trees, for example, cedar and pine trees, are known to be good for clearing the head. So, a walk in a forest can help to freshen the mind and support creative problem solving – who has not been invigorated by the atmosphere around a waterfall in a woodland clearing?
The benefit of an ‘awe’ moment
How many times have you stood and watched the setting sun and gasped at its beauty? Researchers suggest that opportunities to experience a sense of awe are of benefit to our physiological health. These experiences support our understanding of our value in the world. They enable a deep sense of connection and can directly affect the way we treat others. In a sense, we develop a greater sense of altruism when we experience beauty in nature.
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Nature reduces levels of Stress
Scientists have shown that undertaking activity in a natural setting induces feelings of rest, contentment and safety; disarming the body’s need to be on high alert and thereby reducing stress. Stress is a natural part of our body’s function and used when the body needs to be ready for fight or flight. It is a natural defence mechanism, but only designed for short periods. Modern-day life places the body under constant high levels of stress. High levels of stress lead to chronic inflammation and this can lead to serious illness. Even if a natural setting is not readily available in the middle of a busy day, the soothing and calming effect of natural sounds, for example, bird song, the wind and water, have been shown to reduce stress level.
Perhaps as we come to fully value the benefits to our own lives that spending time in and with nature brings, we can see that life must change and with it our perspective on what is important. Trees, woodlands, forests and parks are vital for our health and well-being. Fresh, clean air and water should be the right of every living breathing creature on the planet. Biodiversity, birdsong, and awe-inspiring natural phenomenon, for example, a sunrise, snow-covered or starling murmurations, are essential to our humanity.
3 Quick Nature Fixes
Here are 3 quick things you can do now to maximised the benefits of nature lock down or not!.
- Sleep with the window open. The dawn chorus at this time has been particularly wonderful. If that is not appropriate or waking up early is not your thing, then change your alarm to bird song. That’s what I did on my phone.
- Spend some time tending a garden or planting up some pots or a window box or plants some seeds in a pot for your kitchen. Find a way to watch something grow.
- Take a walk around your neighbourhood, look and listen. I tried this one morning and made a short film about what I found. Why not check it out?