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5 ways to use nature as medicine

Woman on a kayak in the ocean

The great outdoors can boost your energy, improve your mental health and reduce your blood pressure. Here’s how to get more out of it — no matter how busy you are.

Rosemary Black

By Rosemary Black

You may have noticed that you’re often in a better mood when you’re outside. Maybe you breathe the flower-scented air, watch leaves sway in the breeze or listen to waves lap against the shore. It’s soothing, right?

But nature is more than just a relaxation tool. It may also help improve your health in many other ways. Spending time outdoors can lead to lower blood pressure, reduced anxiety and less stress.

Julie Hassen discovered this at a young age. After high school, she hit a rough patch. Many of her closest friends had left for college, but Hassen stayed home in Irvine, California. She’d often spend her days on the couch watching TV.

She was attending a local college but not doing well academically. Then she was invited to go surfing. It gave her a reason to be outside for long stretches of time, and it changed her life. “Surfing made me feel things,” she says. “The water was clear and the way the sand filtered through the water — it looked like gold flakes.”

Shortly afterward, Hassen’s grades began improving and she became a straight-A student. Today she is a master’s candidate for a dual degree from the University of Michigan School of Social Work and the School for Environment and Sustainability. “Mental health has become my life’s work, and it probably all started with surfing,” she says. “By spending time in nature, you get both psychological and physiological improvements to your well-being.”

Hassen found surfing. What will you find? For some specific ways you can use nature as medicine, keep reading.

And if you have a prescription to fill, the Optum Perks mobile app might be able to help. It lets you search for discounts up to 80% off at pharmacies in your area.

Sit quietly with the trees

Put your phone away and find a park bench. Or head to the woods and rest against a tree trunk. Now breathe deeply and relax. It’s that simple.

“There are health benefits from having a connection with nature and being able to unplug from high-stress technology,” says Derrick Sebree Jr., PsyD. He’s a core faculty member at the Michigan School of Psychology. “We have that moment when we are more in our natural state.”

The research on spending time with trees is impressive. It clears your head, and it also improves your immune response and makes you less likely to get sick. That’s according to a 2021 review of 13 studies that looked at forest therapy programs.

In some of the studies, the subjects spent several days in the woods. In others, they meditated, did yoga or walked for 2 hours. In most cases, the researchers found that spending time in nature improved markers of immune function.

“When researchers took blood samples from people who had engaged in ‘forest bathing,’ they found elevated levels of the T cells that are part of the body’s immune system,” says Sebree.

Get your hands dirty

The health benefits of gardening go far beyond the fruits and vegetables you grow. The act itself — putting your hands in the dirt and nurturing plants to health — can have a positive impact.

In one analysis, researchers examined 22 gardening studies, many from the U.S. They found that gardeners were thinner, less likely to be depressed or anxious, and happier with life overall. They suggested that health experts should begin recommending gardening as an alternative to traditional exercise.

One reason for the benefit: dirt. According to the University of Vermont, microbes in soil can improve your immune system, reduce your allergies and activate brain chemicals associated with happiness.

“Just putting your bare feet on the ground, where there are a lot of different organisms that are active in the soil, can help,” says Sebree.

(Owning a pet is another surprising way to avoid illness. Check out these 4 ways a dog keeps you healthy.)

Put a plant on your desk

Since you can’t spend all your time in the garden or a forest, put plants in places where you’ll see them often. It could help you feel less stressed throughout the day.

For a study published in the journal HortTechnology, researchers asked busy office workers to take 3-minute breaks throughout their shifts. For the first part of the study, the workers took breaks at their usual desks. For the second part, they were given a small plant and taught to care for it.

As it turns out, the plant made a measurable impact. Using a questionnaire and the workers’ pulse rates, the researchers found that stress levels dropped faster when the workers had plants.

Take a hike

Research presented at a conference for the American College of Cardiology found a direct link between the number of steps a person takes and their blood pressure. For every 1,000 steps you take each day, expect your blood pressure to fall by nearly half a point.

But if you take those steps outside, you may feel even better. Walking in nature reduces the stress hormone cortisol more than walking on a treadmill does, according to a study in the journal Environment and Behavior.

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Plus, being outdoors exposes you to rays of sunlight that can lead to stronger bones. Light from the sun helps your body make vitamin D, which improves calcium absorption.

Just don’t overdo the direct sunlight. Too much can damage your skin. The Harvard Medical School recommends getting 5 to 30 minutes of direct sunlight (without sunscreen) twice a week, sometime between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. (If you have fair skin that burns easily, limit your sun exposure to 10 minutes, max.)

Visit the outdoors virtually

Thanks to new technology, people who are bedridden, immobile or otherwise stuck inside can experience the outdoors even while inside. Viewing nature through a virtual reality (VR) headset has been shown to have some of the same effects as the real thing.

A study from researchers in Germany found that after people viewed forests and waterfalls in VR, they performed better on a test that looked at their ability to focus. (The test involved doing math in their head.) The subjects also had lower levels of depression and fatigue.

It seems that humans are just wired to respond positively to nature. No matter how you get your green fix, know that adding a bit of green to your life can be a major boost for health.

Of course, when you do need medicine, a virtual waterfall won’t cut it. So download the Optum Perks discount card and use it any time you go to the pharmacy. You may be able to get a reduced price at checkout.

 

Additional sources
Being around trees can improve immunity:
International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (2021). “The effects of forest therapy on immune function
Gardening and health: Preventative Medicine Reports (2017). “Gardening is beneficial for health: a meta-analysis
Health impact of soil: University of Vermont
Indoors plants and stress: HortTechnology (2019). “Potential of a small indoor plant on the desk for reducing office workers’ stress
Hiking reduces stress more than indoor exercise: Environment and Behavior (2018). “Health benefits of walking in nature: a randomized controlled study under conditions of real-life stress
Sunlight recommendations: Harvard Medical School
Link between steps and blood pressure: American College of Cardiology
The impact of nature in virtual reality: Scientific Reports (2021). “Effects of exposure to immersive videos and photo slideshows of forest and urban environments

 

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