For most of human history, a connection to nature was a fact of life. We were intimately tied to the cycles of the sun and seasons and whatever the land around us could provide.
But in the last few generations, we’ve managed to distance ourselves from nature in ways our ancestors would have never imagined. Today we can earn a living, go shopping, have a social life, and enjoy endless entertainment without ever leaving the house. Unless we have somewhere to go, there’s no practical reason to venture outside.
Our indoor lifestyle is clean, comfortable, and convenient, but it may also be starving us of something vital to our wellbeing.
According to Clemens Arvay, an Austrian biologist and author of “The Biophilia Effect: A Scientific and Spiritual Exploration of the Healing Bond Between Humans and Nature,” our bodies were meant to spend much of our time outdoors. Being in nature not only calms our minds, it may actually help prevent and treat disease.
“If you spend one day in the forest, you have 40 percent more natural killer cells in your blood,” Arvay said. “Forest air can also increase the production of DHEA in our adrenal cortex. This substance protects us from coronary heart disease and heart attack.”
Forest air has shown to increase the level of proteins that prevent cancer or fight a tumor if you already have cancer. This increased anti-cancer activity lasts for days after you’ve left the woods.
Much of this evidence comes from Japan, where a walk in the woods is recognized as a legitimate treatment. In 2012, Japanese universities created a new medical research department called Forest Medicine. The roots of this new branch of medicine stem from an ancient Japanese tradition called shinrin-yoku (forest bathing).
Despite the poetry of the term, no actual bathing takes place. Shinrin-yoku is basically a leisurely walk in the woods. But Arvay says it’s like “swimming with our senses,” when our minds and bodies are immersed in the wilderness.
One of the reasons forest air can trigger disease-fighting benefits is a family of plant compounds called terpenes. These volatile phytochemicals allow plants to communicate with each other and maintain the forest ecosystem.
“When a pathogen enters the forest, the plants and trees that suffer the first attack will increase their immune function and release specific terpenes into the forest air,” Arvay said. “Then other plants detect those terpenes in the forest air and know the message: Attention, we are under attack.”
This biochemical communication allows plants in a distant area of the forest to protect themselves against an invading organism.
“What’s so fascinating is that when we enter the forest and breathe in those terpenes from plant communication, our immune system also improves its function,” Arvay said.
Michael Bischoff believes exposure to nature has helped his condition. Bischoff has committed to forest bathing in the woods along the Mississippi River, a half mile from his home in Minnesota. He adopted the habit soon after doctors had done everything they could to treat his aggressive brain cancer.
“I did all the normal treatments: chemo, radiation, clinical trial and, had three surgeries,” Bischoff said. “But after the follow up medical treatment, doctors told me that my prognosis still wasn’t good. Most people die not long after the condition I was in but there was nothing else they could do.”
Then Bischoff learned about forest bathing online in the comments section of CaringBridge—a website devoted to sharing personal journeys of health, illness, and recovery. The commenter suggested forest bathing once a week, but Bischoff decided the severity of his condition called for a more frequent regimen—daily walks in the woods.
Since then, he’s seen a decrease in his headaches, fear of death, and anxiety—and an increase in his sense of relaxation and trust in the possibility of healing. It’s also changed his perspective. Bischoff has gone from dwelling on his own body and survival, to seeing himself as part of a larger natural system.
“This has led to an increased sense of purpose and creativity in the rest of my life,” he said.
Nature Deficit Disorder
While forests have a unique effect on our mind and body, Arvay says exposure to any kind of wilderness setting is beneficial. A more open space, like a savanna, for example, has been shown to stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system, helping us to relax and regenerate.
“This is very important for people who live in big cities where the sympathetic system is usually too active,” he said.
The problem is that many of us city dwellers either have little access to wilderness or aren’t interested in seeking it out.
As a result, children today suffer from what environmental journalist Richard Louv calls “nature deficit disorder.” This affliction is not just about the allure of smartphones and video games. In his book, “Last Child in the Woods,” Louv describes how our culture actively discourages kids from playing outdoors.
“Our institutions, urban/suburban design, and cultural attitudes unconsciously associate nature with doom—while disassociating the outdoors from joy and solitude. Well-meaning public school systems, media, and parents are effectively scaring children straight out of the woods and fields,” Louv writes.
However, educator Dr. Allana Da Graca has found that when kids are exposed to nature it can have miraculous results.
During a summer program in the woods of West Milford, New Jersey, Da Graca had custody of 13 teenagers for nine weeks. The goal of the program was to expose inner city kids to nature and help them develop life skills.
“It was really life-changing,” Da Graca said. “Some of them came from really horrific backgrounds, but they were able to find peace and communicate with each other. I’ve never seen a transformation like I saw with those young people.”
Adapting to the wilderness was rough at first, but in about two weeks Da Graca saw a noticeable shift in her kids’ sense of confidence, trust, and motivation. Away from their familiar setting—sprawling concrete and shrieking police sirens—the teens adjusted to a new influence: trees and chirping birds. Taking in the natural environment, their own natures began to change. They dropped their tough personas and shared their dreams and burdens around the campfire.
Researchers haven’t looked at whether a similar change would occur if kids were given the same support in an indoor setting. But Da Graca feels the presence of nature was fundamental to the transformation she witnessed.
“I felt that true healing was happening for them,” she said. “If you look at studies of urban students and dropout rates, a lot of it is because of the external influences that impact their decisions. It isn’t because they’re not smart; it’s because they can’t focus. But nature allowed these kids to have stillness.”
Nature can sharpen the mind, according to Rachel and Steven Kaplan, environmental psychology professors at the University of Michigan. The Kaplans have shown that exposure to nature restores our capacity for directed attention—the type of focus we need for school and work.
Even those in big cities can usually access a natural ecosystem within 20 minutes of public transportation, Arvay has found.
There are also ways to bring the wilderness even closer. In his new book, “Biophilia in the City,” Arvay calls for covering every conceivable space of our urban environments with plants, such as rooftop gardens, green corridors, and growing facades.
The idea can help lower temperatures, reduce air conditioning costs, and stave off the air pollution found in cities due to the heat absorbing power of so much asphalt and concrete.
It would also create a living space more in tune with our mind and body.
“We are a part of nature,” Arvay said. “If we separate ourselves from our natural habitats it will have a negative effect on us. That is quite clear.”