Most people have a sense that there is something intrinsically healthy about getting out into nature. Truthfully, there is certainly a lot of science that backs up that contention. Well-conducted scientific research demonstrates that there are significant immune-boosting benefits of nature exposure, alongside a lowering of blood pressure, improvement in mood, more rapid recovery from surgery, better sleep, and reduction of stress.
It is the stress consideration that seems to be getting a lot of attention as of late, perhaps as our world and day-to-day lives become more and more stressful. Related to this, researchers have been trying to develop ways of measuring stress, and in particular, its reduction as a result of nature exposure. In addition, there’s been quite a bit of new research trying to determine if there is any benefit to having a nature experience, particularly in an urban environment.
Researchers at the University of Michigan just published a new and interesting study trying to identify two things.
- Is there a simple way of measuring stress that could be utilized in various environments?
- If, in fact, there is a convenient way of measuring stress, how effective is a nature experience in an urban environment for stress reduction?
The scientists decided to look at two biomarkers of stress, salivary cortisol and salivary alpha-amylase. They studied these chemicals over eight weeks in a group of 36 urban-dwelling individuals who were asked to have a nature experience. Nature experience was defined as spending time in an outdoor place that exposed to these individuals to contact with nature. This exposure was required at least three times a week for at least 10 minutes or more. The subjects provided saliva samples before and after the nature experience at four different times over the eight-week study period.
The results revealed an impressive decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, measured in saliva, with the greatest percentage decrease occurring within the first 20 to 30 minutes of nature exposure. Thereafter, cortisol continued to decline, but at a reduced rate. The other marker, salivary alpha-amylase, also declined with nature exposure, but only in subjects with reduced activity (defined as sitting, or sitting with some walking).
So, this study tells us two important things. First, it describes a pretty handy way of measuring stress response in ambulatory individuals under different circumstances. This finding will certainly appeal to researchers who are involved in this area of study.
A much wider interpretation of this study centers on the fact that the researchers clearly demonstrated how exposure to nature, even in an urban environment, does some pretty incredible things. When you read about the effects of nature exposure, oftentimes we are left with the feeling that we must spend several days far from home, in an isolated environment, to reap the benefits. What this study shows us is that there are, in fact, demonstrable benefits from even a 20- to 30-minute nature experience, even in an urban environment. This brings scientific support to the notion that taking your lunch break outside is a healthy choice, at least as it relates to stress.
And further, what we describe in our upcoming book, Brain Wash, is that there is terrific science that supports the health benefits from something as simple as having plants in your home or office. Brain Wash explores what we have termed as Disconnection Syndrome – the very real physical and mental downsides of becoming disconnected from nature, the positive messages from our DNA, the health-supporting activities of our gut bacteria, the brain’s rational decision making center (the prefrontal cortex), our friends and families, and even from the planet on which we live.
It’s time to reconnect