Environmental

The Health Benefits of Bringing Nature Indoors

Bringing the sights and sounds of nature into our homes can enliven our space—and our health
BY Erin Wildermuth TIMEJuly 26, 2022 PRINT

Think back to the last time you felt rejuvenated. Chances are you weren’t lounging on your couch or at a desk. You likely weren’t inside at all. For many people, it’s the great expanse of nature that calls us back to ourselves. Stormy skylines, mountain tops seen from afar, the feel of the wind in our hair, and the sounds of birds enliven our senses and cultivate a natural feeling of wonder.

Nature is an elixir of health and well-being, but even the most nature-oriented people spend much of their lives indoors. When we bring components of the natural world into our homes, we can enjoy some of the benefits of nature—even when we can’t get outside. Here are some research-backed ways to unlock the natural world indoors as a tool for healthy living.

Prioritizing House Plants

The first thing most people associate with the great outdoors is plant life. In the era of urbanization, many community plans now prioritize green spaces and parks. Researchers know that experiencing these spaces has several benefits. It makes sense then, that the more we can make our indoor space like the outdoors, the more we can enjoy some of these benefits while indoors.

In a review of studies conducted on the psychological benefits of indoor plants, researchers found evidence that plants enhance work performance and reduce stress—with stress being a major contributor to cortisol levels, high blood pressure, and its many associated physical ailments.

Indoor plants also play a role in air purification, filtering a wide variety of toxins from our homes. Researchers have suggested keeping indoor plants as a cost-effective method of protecting inhabitants from viruses such as COVID-19 because plants offer air filtration, release anti-microbial derivatives, and modulate indoor humidity. In one study, houseplants were found to reduce airborne microbials by 50 percent when compared to rooms without plants.

Investing in Nature Visuals

Even pictures of nature have benefits. Researchers have found that the very geometry of nature supports “neuronal renewal.”

Our brains are hard-wired to read fractal patterns, which repeat without end at different scales, as background. When compared to sharp edges, cuboidal, and other man-made patterns and shapes, fractals allow our minds to take a much-needed break. As a natural consequence of this theory, overexposure to nonnatural visual shapes may have a detrimental effect on our health.

This theory has been supported in the research. For example, a review of studies looking at exposure to natural versus urban landscapes found that the natural landscapes allowed for quicker recovery from stress, mental fatigue, and physical illness. In contrast, urban landscapes could have a negative effect. One method of exposure is simply investment in nature-based art. However, a window view may have additional health benefits.

Cultivating Light-Filled Rooms

Large, light-embracing windows can provide two nature-based benefits—a view of natural spaces and exposure to natural light. Indoor lighting rarely provides the full spectrum of biologically important wavelengths of light provided by the sun. Full-spectrum fluorescent lighting comes close, and bulbs specifically designed to mimic the sun may be a good substitute, but the ultimate lighting source is just outside.

Scientists are unable to fully quantify the benefits of natural sunlight. It’s essential to many biological processes on earth and a key component of how our ecosystems operate. In humans, light is a vital cue to our sleep-wake cycles, or circadian rhythm. The sun provides ultraviolet B wavelengths essential to producing vitamin D in the body and near-infrared light that penetrates into the body and can spur the mitochondria in our cells to create more ATP, the energy crucial for cellular processes. Indoor light can sometimes contain these wavelengths, but not in meaningful intensities. Sunlight tends toward illumination rates of 2,000 to 100,000 lux, while indoor lighting may be as low as 500 lux.

Our technology use also plays a role in disrupting our access to natural light cycles. The blue light emitted from our electronic devices is fine for daytime hours but disrupts melatonin production, a key circadian rhythm modulator, at night. Many modern people are likely to be getting too little light during the day, and too much light at night.

The cost is circadian dysregulation. Epidemiological studies have linked circadian dysregulation to a myriad of health concerns, including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, premature aging, some cancers, and cognitive impairment. This wide range of associated ailments is a testament to the importance of light in our lives.

Creating light-filled rooms by investing in large windows and allowing more natural light into our living spaces is a first-line defense against circadian dysregulation. Getting outside and soaking in some natural light first thing in the morning can help reset our sleep-wake cycle. Other things that can help are limiting the use of electronics after dark, investing in black-out curtains to prevent streetlights from disrupting nighttime darkness, and using red lights in bathrooms at night.

Seek Out Sounds of Nature

Beyond natural visual cues, studies have shown that adding natural sounds, such as birdsong, wind, and water, to our environments can have benefits, including improved mood and cognitive performance. A review of such research, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that “nature sounds and soundscapes can lead to subjectively and objectively improved mood and cognitive performance, as well as reductions in arousal, although some inconsistencies in findings are observed.”

Adding natural sounds can also cleanse your auditory environment of other sounds. For example, the trickling water of a fountain can smooth over the less pleasing sounds of a nearby road. Audio recordings of waves or trickling creeks are a popular genre on YouTube and popular among people who want something more soothing to drown out the distracting noise of their office or add a soothing touch to their home.

Select your sounds of choice—birds, water, whales, crickets, etc—based on your personal preference and experiences of rejuvenation. Opening a window will have the added benefit of allowing fresh air into your living space, but recordings are also effective.

Conclusion

Our homes have become more comfortable than ever—perfect temperature control, easy lighting, running water, and indoor plumbing. In some ways, however, these advances have moved us backward. Air quality is notably worse indoors than out, and our increasing hours inside have come with significant side effects. A little knowledge and planning can add important elements of nature to our living space and reduce those effects without sacrificing the comforts of a modern, well-loved home.

Erin is a writer turned MD/PhD student studying molecular medicine and genome biology. She’s passionate about using scientific knowledge and technology to improve the human condition, whether that be human health or social organizing. Erin holds a master’s degree in International Political Economy from the London School of Economics.

Erin Wildermuth is a writer turned master's/doctorate student studying molecular medicine and genome biology. She is passionate about using scientific knowledge and technology to improve the human condition, whether that be human health or social organizing. She holds a master’s degree in international political economy from the London School of Economics.
You May Also Like