Head for the Forest!
Whether you’re recovering from illness or just trying to lead a healthier lifestyle, make sure to get your daily dose of Vitamin N. You won’t find it at the drugstore — you have to collect it outdoors.
Vitamin N (the “N” stands for “nature”) is a term created by author Richard Louv, who is sounding the alarm about our increasing lack of contact with the natural world. Louv believes depression, stress, obesity, behavioral disorders, and other physical and psychological problems can be traced to what he calls “nature deficit disorder” — and there’s growing evidence that he’s right.
Today in North America and Europe, most people spend 90% of their time indoors and another 5% inside a car. That means we’re missing out on many powerful gifts from Mother Nature. For example, research suggests that children who spend more time outdoors are less likely than others to develop myopia (nearsightedness).
While the exact reasons for these health benefits are not always clear, scientists suspect that they’re related in part to how our brains are affected by the sights, sounds, smells, and other sensory experiences of the natural world. These responses seem to have been hard-wired in humans during the thousands of years when most of our time was spent outdoors.
Spending time in nature is associated with:
- Lower blood pressure and stress levels
- Faster recovery after illness or injury
- Better sleep
- Reduced hostility and depression
- Higher energy levels
- Calming effects on children with Attention Deficit Disorder who are restless and distracted
The Sidewalk Does Not Equal the Forest Path
These benefits don’t seem to be due to just exercise and fresh air. Several studies note that the effects are linked to spending several hours a week in forests and other natural settings — not city environments.
Even viewing a natural scene from a window may benefit patients who are hospitalized or unable to leave their homes. One study found that inpatients who had a view of trees from their hospital rooms needed less pain medication, experienced lower levels of depression, and stayed in the hospital less time compared with those whose windows looked out on a brick wall.
If you’re a cancer survivor, two particular studies may make you sit up and take notice:
- Japanese researchers studying the benefits of shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing”) found that after spending eight hours in a forest, participants had a “significant increase” in the activity of the immune system’s natural killer (NK) cells — which can bind to and kill tumor cells and cells infected with viruses — and levels of immunoglobulin A, G, and M, antibodies that play an important role in the immune system.
- A study of women newly diagnosed with breast cancer showed that those who had two hours per week of exposure to the natural environment were able to concentrate longer.
Tips for Reconnecting with Nature
- Especially if you are a cancer survivor, be sure to check with your oncologist before heading into the woods.
- Looking for a place to explore the forest? In Western New York, check out Reinstein Woods Nature Preserve in Depew or Tifft Nature Preserve in Buffalo.
- At home, you can bring the natural world to your doorstep by planting native species to attract birds and butterflies. No garden? Try a planter.
- On Twitter? Follow @ChildrenNature.
- Learn more from Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods.
- Watch National Geographic’s “This Is Your Brain on Nature.”