It’s not quite sure as to how spending time with mother nature will lead to better over health, but that shouldn’t stop you. Ming Kuo, the University of Illinois environment and behavior researcher, reviewed hundreds of studies that examined nature’s effects on our health and believes that nature has the ability to increase the function of our immune system.
Kuo said, “I pulled every bit of the research in this area together that I could find, and was surprised to realize I could trace as many as 21 possible pathways between nature and good health–and even more surprised to realize that all but two of the pathways shared a single common denominator.”
“The realization that there are so many pathways helps explain not only how nature promotes health, but also why nature has such huge, broad effects on health,” she said. “Nature doesn’t just have one or two active ingredients.
It’s more like a multivitamin that provides us with all sorts of the nutrients we need. That’s how nature can protect us from all these different kinds of diseases–cardiovascular, respiratory, mental health, musculoskeletal, etc. — simultaneously.”
Kuo explained that one way to understand the partnership between the immune system, health, and nature is that when we are exposed to nature our body flips the ‘rest and digest’ switch, the opposite of our ‘fight or flight’ switch. When we are in the ‘fight or flight’ mode our body stops everything nonessential, this includes the immune system.
“When we feel completely safe, our body devotes resources to long-term investments that lead to good health outcomes–growing, reproducing, and building the immune system,” Kuo said. “When we are in nature in that relaxed state, and our body knows that it’s safe, it invests resources toward the immune system.”
For those who prefer playing a board game or visiting an art gallery to taking a walk in the park, Kuo says some of the same restorative benefits can be obtained. “if you are absorbed and relaxed, chances are your parasympathetic system is happy and your immune system is going to get a boost.
That said, these enjoyable indoor activities don’t provide the phytoncides, mycobacterium vaccae, negative air ions, vitamin D-producing sunlight, and other active ingredients found outdoors. So we’d expect a smaller boost than you’d get from being in nature.”
“Finding that the immune system is a primary pathway provides an answer to the question of ‘how’ nature and the body work in concert to fight disease,” Kuo said.
“How might contact with nature promote human health? Exploring promising mechanisms and a possible central pathway” is published in Frontiers in Psychology and available online.