Ever get the craving to go off on a big hike and lose yourself in a natural landscape, then come back feeling calmer and revitalised? Yes, us too, and turns out there are good reasons behind why we get this urge to connect with nature.
This week we look at the numerous health benefits of nature and how different cultures around the world use nature as a healer.
Nature is the original medicine cabinet
Humankind has long understood the healing powers available in nature. The Ancient Greeks especially were pioneers in this field. Hippocrates, the godfather of western medicine, famously said “sickness is not sent by the gods or taken away by them. It has a natural basis. If we can find the cause, we can find the cure.”
His holistic approach to medicine was based on cures derived from nature, including a healthy diet and exercise. One can imagine him traversing the Greek islands his tunic and sandals searching for interesting plants to experiment with (he liked sage, juniper and fennel).
As time’s gone by, we’ve built out this ancient way of thinking of nature as a diverse and potent pharmacy. Famous examples include penicillin and aspirin, but it’s thought that as much as 50% of drugs approved during the last 30 years were from either directly or indirectly from natural products. Fun fact: tomato ketchup was once sold as a medicine. We’ve barely scratched the surface, who knows what else remains to be discovered?
A tonic for the mind
But the healing benefits of nature go beyond medicines to cure physical illnesses. There’s a reason many of us seek nature breaks. This is because being in nature has been shown to have numerous psychological benefits such as reducing stress and anxiety and helping to combat depression.
For these reasons, doctors on the Scottish Shetland Islands, renowned for their remote beauty, have been authorized to prescribe nature to their patients. Fun-sounding remedies include touching the sea, talking to a pony, and making a bug hotel. Likewise in Finland, a research team suggested a minimum nature dose of five hours per month in blocks of 40-50 minutes.
Although it’s good to get some exercise, experiencing nature doesn’t have to be strenuous. In Japan, shinrin-yoku, also known as forest bathing, is popular with stressed city workers looking to unplug from urban life. They go out into forests to spend time away from technology and to rebalance the senses. It’s been found that as well as having psychological benefits, being around trees can improve your immune system too.
If you don’t have easy access to a forest or wilderness, the good news is that urban green spaces such as parks or even gardens can be used to dose up on nature as well.
A reconnection post-COVID?
Historically the natural world has always been a core part of our collective culture but urbanisation has diminished its significance somewhat, with a rapidly increasing amount of people now living in cities.
During COVID-19 lockdown, the decline of human activities allowed the natural world some respite and gave people time so they could once again reconnect with nature. A study in the UK found that 59% of people spent more time observing nature whilst quarantined. People in cities got used to hearing the sound of birdsong instead of the roar of traffic and aeroplanes, and many turned to exploring their immediate neighbourhoods to see what nature they could find.
Some ‘rebel botanists’ in London even took to graffitiing the names of wild plants that push up between cracks in the pavement to help people identify them.
Whether or not this revaluing of green spaces and nature persists post-COVID remains to be seen. There are some positive signs, with many large cities announcing their intention to make cities greener by reducing traffic and replacing roads with cycle lanes.
Getting out there
Nature is wonderful for our physical and mental wellbeing, and it’s free! The more we preserve, the better it will be for us. Hopefully this article has kindled your desire to get out there and explore it some more.
Some ideas for this are:
-Packing a backpack and heading out to a national park, beach or forest.
-Going on a camping trip with friends or family.
-Volunteering on a nature project e.g. butterfly counting.
-Reading a book or sitting quietly in the garden.
-Taking up gardening.
-Lying on some grass and watching the clouds.
-Organising a picnic with friends.
Make sure to stay socially distanced and enjoy!