Whether I’m going for a walk in the park, countryside or on a beach, I instantly feel more at peace within myself when I’m in nature. I know it has this effect on so many of us, but why is this?
The Japanese have long realised the beneficial health and mood effects of being in nature, by regularly taking part in what they call Shinrin-yoku, also known as forest bathing. Simply being in nature is shown to have incredible psychological and physical health benefits. Participants taking part in forest bathing found that their pulse rates had decreased as did scores for fatigue, depression, anxiety and confusion (Li et al. 2016).
Studies have shown how being around nature actively reduces our stress levels (Ewert et al.2018) as well as symptoms of depression and anxiety (Beyer et al. 2014). These benefits arise through our five senses (sight, sound, touch, smell and taste) along with three main non-sensory experiences, including phytoncides and negative air ions (Franco et al.2018).
The 5 Senses
Research has found that it is the multi-sensory experience received within nature that contributes to reducing stress levels and driving positive mental states. This is because monotonous stimulation can be a source of stress.
One study examined how participants felt negatively towards going into a room with a virtual nature environment (think digital screens simulating a park with the sounds of birds!). This adverse reaction arose due to the lack of an authentic sensory experience that nature typically provides. When the participants were physically outside in nature their stress levels decreased dramatically. The smell, the feeling of a breeze on your skin and temperature sensations all add to this multisensory experience which work to create feelings of calm. (Franco et al.2018).
An antimicrobial compound called phytoncides are emitted by plants to defend them from attacks of herbivores or decay. Humans unknowingly consume these compounds when inhaling.
Phytoncides have been studied within mice to show how they can suppress the central nervous system and relieve anxiety, increase relaxation and prolong sleep (Franco et al.2018). Whilst there is currently limited evidence on how phytoncides work on humans, these early animal studies could be promising in the future when looking at their impact on human health.
Nature Brings You Back to Your Roots
This is an anecdotal one from myself, but I believe that nature can bring us back to our roots. This lies in our exposure to natural stimuli and nature gives us that innate sense of being ‘grounded’.
With nature, we are distanced from social pressures, technology and all of the micro-stressors that come with them.
Air ions are positively or negatively charged particles in the air and both have very different effects on our mood and wellbeing
Positive Air Ions
Positively charged air ions form in high winds, pollution, magnetic fields (from electrical household appliances such as computers, mobile phones, televisions, printers), dust and humidity, and are at particularly high levels just before an electrical storm. Positive air ions are reported as being harmful to our health (Ogungbe et al.2011) (Alphalabinc, 2018).
Impact on health
Over-exposure to positive ions is believed to contribute towards feelings of tiredness, anxiety and low mood, as well as headaches (Paulien 1995).
Negative Air Ions
Negatively charged air ions are created in nature by sunlight, radiation and the effects of moving air and water.
It is therefore not surprising that studies show that mountains had the highest levels, particularly in areas with waterfalls, followed by rural and coastal areas, with cities having the lowest levels of negative ions. Unlike positive ions, studies show how negative ions are supportive of our health and mood.
Impact on health
Allergies and Sensitivities: Reports show how negative air ions can help to relieve symptoms of allergies and sensitives to mould spores and dust (Jiang et al.2018). Air ions tend to gather around pollutants and have the ability to clean the air, allowing us to breathe air that has a reduced number of pollutants. This instantly helps to decrease our exposure to toxins that can be huge stressors on our nervous system.
Elevated mood: When it comes to our mental state and happiness, negative air ions have been shown to help. Studies found that when exposed to high levels of negative ions, depression scores were lower (Perez et al.2013).
This can be explained by studies that show how positive air ions create an overproduction of serotonin (a neurotransmitter that regulates mood) in the blood. Whilst you may think, “the more serotonin, the better the mood”, in actual fact, too much serotonin can lead to psychological and emotional distress, depression and anxiety.
Negative ions, on the other hand, balance the production of serotonin resulting in natural treatments for these conditions.
Energy and sleep: Negative ions have also been shown to help ‘increase the flow of oxygen to the brain resulting in higher alertness, decreased drowsiness, and more mental energy’ (Howard 2014). What also contributes to this is that these negative ions help to normalise and balance serotonin levels in the brain that cause sleeplessness and nightmares, which helps you have a better and healthier sleep.
Blood Pressure: When exposed to more negative air ions, people have been shown to have lowered blood pressure and have a decreased respiratory rate (Paulien 1995).
Why Nature is Best
Developed areas such as towns and cities are recognised as having ion depletion, as there is as little as 10% of the air ion concentration of the outdoors when indoors. Due to city dwellers spending as much as 90% of their time indoors, this reduced contact with nature can very much be connected to reduced mood and health.
Whilst there are still air ions indoors, the difference is that there are more positive air ions inside and in built-up areas than there are negative air ions. This is because negatively charged ions are being depleted by pollutants and electrical interference,which is more abundant in these areas. This includes things such as air conditioning and heating systems,which often remove negative ions from the air and add positive charges instead (Paulien 1995).
This is why we should reap the health benefits when in contact with nature.
What simple things can you do to help (even if you live in a city):
- Breaks to the countryside: Whilst moving out of a city would be the best way to achieve these results, Lauren and I are not about to pack up everything and move to the countryside. We love London, our friends and work are here and its where we feel happiest right now. What we suggest is to take some more weekend breaks into the countryside if you can or simply take more walks on the outskirts of the city. If you live in London, head to Richmond park or Hampstead Heath, where the air is a little cleaner and you are surrounded by more wildlife. Even a little walk to your local park can be the trick to boosting your mood, as it stimulates your five senses and you are surrounding yourself with more of these helpful negative air ions.
- Bring the outdoors indoors: Plants also release negative air ions (Jiang et al.2018), therefore including more green plants in your home can negate the effects of positive ions that are in abundance in our homes. Not to mention, plants are so pretty; why wouldn’t we want to surround ourselves with them?
- Ventilation: Regularly open your windows to let in some fresh air.
- Invest in an ionizer:An ionizer will generate more negative ions and release them into the air, and as we know ‘high concentrations of negative ions are essential for high energy and positive mood (Thayer, 1996)’.
- Himalayan salt Lamps: Having a salt lamp in your home can help you feel less stressed and improve your mood. There are discussions around how when heated, these salt lamps produce negative ions, although in very low amounts and this has not yet had enough scientific backing. Whilst this is therefore anecdotal, I absolutely love Himalayan salt lamps, and just because there haven’t been enough studies on it yet to prove this doesn’t mean there won’t be in the future. What I do know is that salt lamps can produce a beneficial chromotherapy effect through their soft warm glow. Chromotherapy is a method of treatment that looks at how colours (visible spectrum) of electromagnetic radiation can help with various states and disorders. It shows how colours can change the ‘biochemical and hormonal processes in the human body, the stimulants or sedatives necessary to balance the entire system and its organs’ (Azeemi et al.2005). I personally feel so much more relaxed and stress free when there is low key soft ambient lighting around, and this is a big contributing factor to why we have developed the ARDERE Self-discovery collection of candles.
I hope you have found this article useful. Sometimes it’s not enough just having someone say ‘go for a walk it will help you feel less stressed’. You sometimes need to know why, and by understanding the science behind why nature can help to boost your mood and health, it can help motivate you to get out in nature more often.
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A.S. Ogungbe, O.H. Akintoye and B.A. Idowu, 2011. Effects of Gaseous Ions on the Environment and Human Performance. Trends in Applied Sciences Research, 6: 130-133. Available at: https://scialert.net/fulltextmobile/?doi=tasr.2011.130.133 (Accessed 14 December 2018).
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Beyer K. M. M., Kaltenbach A., Szabo A., et al.(2014). Exposure to neighbourhood green space and mental health: Evidence from the survey of the health of Wisconsin. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health (11), pp.3453–3472.
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