Contact with Nature is Good for your Health

It seems so obvious that we often forget it:  being out in nature is really good for us!  From the warm sun on our skin at the beach to the relaxing cool air of a forest walk, getting out into nature is an important component of a healthy lifestyle. So many people are busy with work or school or taking care of things at home that they don’t think about how healing the natural world around them can actually be.  But there is a lot of evidence to support the idea that being outside should be included in a regular health maintenance plan. 

Physical Health

Having physical access to a green space is important.

The health benefits of spending time in nature are substantial. Some of these benefits relate to our physical health, as shown in studies demonstrating time outside has direct impacts on health measures such as blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels.1,2 

A large part of these benefits has to do with the physical activities that happen in green spaces, such as walking, hiking, team sports, and more. 

We know that the closer people live to a green space like a park, the more likely they are to be physically active and healthier.


Han B, Cohen DA, Derose KP, Marsh T, Williamson S, Raaen L. How much neighborhood parks contribute to local residents’ physical activity in the City of Los Angeles: A meta-analysis. Prev Med (Baltim).

However, studies also show that these health benefits exist even when adjusting for the positive effects of exercise. This means having access to nearby green space is important for people to be physically active, but there are additional reasons why spending time in nature is good for our health. 

Stress

One of the most studied reasons for a time in nature benefit is its impact on stress.  As anyone who has ever ended a busy day with a long walk knows, escaping to a natural setting can be very therapeutic. The sights, sounds, and smells of nature produce an automatic relaxing effect on both body and mind.  This influences blood pressure and heart rate, as well as hormonal biomarkers of stress like salivary cortisol and the biofeedback measure known as heart rate variability that ultimately impact blood sugar and cholesterol.1  Multiple studies have shown that spending time in nature significantly reduces these measures of stress to a degree that may actually be saving people’s lives.5,6

Mental Health

Of course, stress doesn’t just influence our physical health, but also our mental health. Time in and around nature is an excellent remedy for stress.

More than just “feeling good” while outside, natural “green time” reduces the negative mental effects of stress such as anxiety, restlessness, and irritability.

This is in contrast to emerging evidence about the modern digital screen which evidence shows has the opposite effect especially in children.7

Getting outside on a regular basis can also significantly improve concentration, memory, and attention, and reduces symptoms of ADHD.8,9  In addition, being in nature results in significant improvements in mood, both increasing positive emotions like happiness and joy and decreasing negative moods and depression.10–12 Spending time outside can be a great boost to mental health and overall mental well-being in both adults and children.13,14

Biophilia

Our prehistoric ancestors were on an extended camping trip, and over time they evolved with that environment to appreciate it as “home” in mind and body.

All of these physical and mental benefits of connecting with nature are thought to be the result of evolutionary adaptations that our species developed by living in a 100% natural environment for millions of years. This theory of “Biophilia” suggests that our prehistoric ancestors evolved with an inherent affinity for the natural world because that was the environment available to them,15 similar to the rationale for the popular Paleolithic (“Paleo”) diet.

Essentially, our prehistoric ancestors were on an extended camping trip, and over time they evolved with that environment to appreciate it as “home” in mind and body.  And though we may be millennia away from their “survival of the fittest” lifestyle, our default psychological and physiological responses and baseline are still set to those natural settings. This is the reason that walking in the forest or sitting around a campfire can feel so therapeutic.  These experiences nourish a core experience that has been ingrained into our species for a long time.

Nature Deficient Disorder and Vitamin N

These inherent responses to nature are so much a part of our collective history that we begin to suffer when we don’t have them.  At least, this is the thinking of people like the author Richard Louv, who has developed the concept of “Nature Deficit Disorder” to describe the set of physical and mental diseases commonly associated with lack of outdoor time.16 Louv has also suggested that exposure to nature is so fundamental to the human experience that it should be considered a vital nutrient, “Vitamin N,” that human beings need regularly for optimal health.  Many people can certainly vouch for the beneficial properties of Vitamin N for themselves when noticing how good they feel sitting on a beach or just stepping outside after a long day in the office. 

After spending an hour outdoors interacting with nature, memory performance and attention spans improved by 20%.


Gernes R, Hertzberg R, MacDonell M, et al. Estimating Greenspace Exposure and Benefits for Cumulative Risk Assessment Applications and Gascon M, Triguero-Mas M, Martínez D, et al. Residential green spaces and mortality: A systematic review.

Nature and Health Programs

These healing properties of Nature have been noticed and incorporated in healthcare systems around the world.  In Japan, there are designated Forest Therapy Centers, co-funded by the Ministries of Forestry and Health, where people can go to participate in the restorative practice of “forest air bathing”(shinrinyoku). This experience has demonstrated all of the health benefits mentioned above, as well as a measured increase in immune system function due to the presence of aromatherapeutic chemicals produced by the trees. 17 Meanwhile, just as this article was being written, a piece was posted about hospitals in Norway that have built recovery rooms in the deep forest, so that patients can reduce their stress and relax in a natural, non-medical setting.  In the US, hospitals like the Legacy Health system in Portland, Oregon are incorporating therapeutic horticulture gardens onsite for the benefit of patients, families, and staff. And in Bethesda, Maryland the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center has set aside 2 acres of woodland for veterans suffering from PTSD and other injuries to recover and heal.  All these programs show the interest within the medical community to begin to utilize the healing powers of being in nature.

Get Outside

Any opportunity to step away from a digital screen, get outside and let nature work her magic is a good one.

Of course, there doesn’t need to be a program or prescription to get out and enjoy these benefits. Any opportunity to step away from a digital screen, get outside and let nature work her magic is a good one. This is an important idea to include in a healing regimen for any of the health conditions mentioned above (and more!)  It also works as part of a regular health maintenance plan to increase wellness and prevent disease before it begins.  It is not only going to feel good but will be making substantial benefits to your health in mind and body.  So get outside as much as you can, you’ll be glad you did!

For more from Dr. Beil on Nature Bathing and the benefits of being outdoor, please listen to this podcast from RadioMD.

Naturopathic doctors are optimally skilled to help connect health and nature. Learn more about how a licensed ND is educated and treats patients with our informative FAQ series.

Kurt Beil, ND, LAc, MPH, is a naturopathic and Chinese medicine practitioner in New York’s lower Hudson Valley region. He completed a Master’s degree in Public Health focusing on urban green space as a method of sustainable public health promotion.  Dr. Beil has published original research and taught widely on the restorative and therapeutic effect of natural environments and he gets out to “walk his talk” about the healing power of Nature by hiking, camping and cross-country skiing as often as possible.


This article is provided by the Institute for Natural Medicine, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, partnered with the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. INM’s mission is to transform healthcare in America by increasing both public awareness of naturopathic medicine and access to naturopathic doctors for patients. INM believes that naturopathic medicine, with its unique principles and practices, has the potential to reverse the tide of chronic illness that overwhelms existing health care systems and to empower people to achieve and maintain their optimal lifelong health. INM strives to achieve this mission through the following  initiatives:

  • Education – Reveal the unique benefits and outcomes of naturopathic medicine
  • Access – Connect patients to licensed naturopathic doctors
  • Research – Expand quality research of this complex and comprehensive system of medicine

Citations

  1. Twohig-bennett C, Jones A. The health benefits of the great outdoors: A systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes. Environ Res. 2018;166(June):628-637. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2018.06.030
  2. Ideno Y, Hayashi K, Abe Y, et al. Blood pressure-lowering effect of Shinrin-yoku (Forest bathing): a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2017;17(1):409. doi:10.1186/s12906-017-1912-z
  3. Han B, Cohen DA, Derose KP, Marsh T, Williamson S, Raaen L. How much neighborhood parks contribute to local residents’ physical activity in the City of Los Angeles: A meta-analysis. Prev Med (Baltim). 2014;69:S106-S110. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2014.08.033
  4. Thompson Coon J, Boddy K, Stein K, Whear R, Barton J, Depledge MH. Does participating in physical activity in outdoor natural environments have a greater effect on physical and mental wellneing than physical activity outdoors? A systemic review. Environ Sci Technol. 2011;45:1761-1772. doi:10.1021/es102947t
  5. Gernes R, Hertzberg R, MacDonell M, et al. Estimating Greenspace Exposure and Benefits for Cumulative Risk Assessment Applications (Summary Report). 2016;(May 2015).
  6. Gascon M, Triguero-Mas M, Martínez D, et al. Residential green spaces and mortality: A systematic review. Environ Int. 2016;86:60-67. doi:10.1016/J.ENVINT.2015.10.013
  7. Domingues-Montanari S. Clinical and psychological effects of excessive screen time on children. J Paediatr Child Health. 2017;53(4):333-338. doi:10.1111/jpc.13462
  8. Stevenson MP, Schilhab T, Bentsen P. Attention Restoration Theory II: a systematic review to clarify attention processes affected by exposure to natural environments. J Toxicol Environ Heal – Part B Crit Rev. 2018;21(4). doi:10.1080/10937404.2018.1505571
  9. Faber Taylor A, Kuo FEM. Could exposure to everyday green spaces help treat adhd? Evidence from children’s play settings. Appl Psychol Heal Well-Being. 2011;3(3):281-303. doi:10.1111/j.1758-0854.2011.01052.x
  10. Capaldi CA, Dopko RL, Zelenski JM. The relationship between nature connectedness and happiness: A meta-analysis. Front Psychol. 2014;5(AUG):1-15. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00976
  11. McMahan EA, Estes D. The effect of contact with natural environments on positive and negative affect: A meta-analysis. J Posit Psychol. 2015;9760(December):1-13. doi:10.1080/17439760.2014.994224
  12. Lee I, Choi H, Bang KS, Kim S, Song MK, Lee B. Effects of forest therapy on depressive symptoms among adults: A systematic review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017;14(3). doi:10.3390/ijerph14030321
  13. Houlden V, Weich S, de Albuquerque JP, Jarvis S, Rees K. The relationship between greenspace and the mental wellbeing of adults: A systematic review. PLoS One. 2018;13(9). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0203000
  14. Vanaken G-J, Danckaerts M. Impact of Green Space Exposure on Children’s and Adolescents’ Mental Health: A Systematic Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018;15(12):2668. doi:10.3390/ijerph15122668
  15. Wilson EO. Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; 1984.
  16. Louv R. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Press; 2005.
  17. Hansen MM, Jones R, Tocchini K. Shinrin-yoku (Forest bathing) and nature therapy: A state-of-the-art review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017;14(8). doi:10.3390/ijerph14080851

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Deb Hubers

Debra Hubers is a serial entrepreneur and has started seven businesses; ranging from an advanced genomics to an employer health care purchasing cooperative. Deb has over 35 years of experience in healthcare finance, education, technology, and pharmacogenomics.

Ms. Hubers has dedicated her career to measuring and improving healthcare outcomes. Her expertise is leveraging technology to deliver personalized, preventative medicine. Ms. Hubers co-founded La Vita Compounding Pharmacy in 2007. Collaborating with her business partner, physicians and strategic partners, Deb has grown La Vita to be one of the most respected and sought-after personalized medicine providers on the west coast. She is also Co-Founder of EpigeneticsRx, a leading provider of precise, personalized, prevention which positively impacts genetic expression.

Alex Keller, ND

Dr. Alex Keller, ND, AFMCP is a graduate of the University of Ottawa with an Honours Bachelor in Health Sciences and Psychology. Although originally intending to attend conventional medical school, following a three-month volunteer internship at a rural Kenyan hospital where he observed how doctors used local food to treat patients, he shifted his career goals and pursued a degree in naturopathic medicine at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto.

After one year of practicing with the esteemed Dr. Chris Pickrell, ND, RH in a community acupuncture setting, in 2015 he and his wife Dr. Jenn Keller, ND moved to rural Ottawa, Canada where they started an organic farm and retreat center. In the same year, Alex and his athletic therapist sister Jess Keller combined their practices to form Keller Active Health, an integrative physical therapy clinic.

Ever curious and passionate about the education of evidence-based natural medicine, in 2017, Dr. Keller joined a fledgling Ottawa-based health tech startup named Fullscript. He serves as its Medical Director and oversees the development of medical education content for practitioners across North America.

Prior to medicine, Alex worked in the renewable energy sector, where he developed a deep passion for sustainable agriculture and environmental stewardship. This connection between medicine and agriculture now drives Alex to focus much of his energy on bringing awareness to the quality and sourcing standards in the supplement and organic agriculture supply chains.

Today, he splits his professional time practicing as a clinician, working for Fullscript, and expanding the farming operation while chasing his kids with Jenn and occasionally running ultra-marathon trail races. He is also currently completing an Executive MBA through the Quantic School of Business & Technology with a focus on supply chain innovation.

Pamela Snider, ND

Pamela Snider, ND, is Executive and Senior Editor for the Foundations of Naturopathic Medicine Project, producing a first of its kind international textbook of Naturopathic medicine through a series of international retreats and symposia. A nationally recognized integrative health and policy leader, she is active in both national and regional integrative health initiatives. Dr. Snider serves on the Board of Directors, was founding Executive Director and co-founder of the Academic Consortium for Integrative Health (ACIH/ACCAHCa consortium of the councils of schools, accrediting agencies and certifying bodies of the licensed, traditional and emerging integrative health professions, and is currently Vice Chair and co-founder of the Integrative Health Policy Consortium (IHPC).  Dr. Snider served as a founding Board Member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine from 2014-2016. Her public policy work includes completing a two year appointment to the DHHS Center For Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) Medicare Coverage Advisory Committee (MCAC); serving as a Steering Committee Member for  the HRSA funded American College of Preventive Medicine NCCIM Integrative Medicine in Preventive Medicine Residency program, co-directing in USPHS Region X the Building Bridges Between Provider Communities Group, an exploration of interdisciplinary collaboration and common ground between public health and CAM; serving for 22 years on Washington State’s Health Professional Loan Repayment and Scholarship Program Advisory Committee (HPLRSP); providing technical assistance to and developing key language for the enabling legislation for NIH Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCIH/NCCAM); and staffing Joseph Pizzorno ND during his appointment as Commissioner on the White House Commission on CAM Policy.

From 1994-2003, Dr. Snider served as Associate Dean for Public and Professional Affairs and Naturopathic Medicine at Bastyr University, dividing her work between academic and public affairs activities, including chairing the Naturopathic Medicine Program Curriculum Review Committee.  Dr. Snider has been teaching, publishing and lecturing widely on Naturopathic philosophy, theory integrative health, public policy, and other topics for over 30 years. Currently, an Associate Professor at National University of Natural Medicine (NUNM) in Portland, OR, Dr. Snider also continues at Bastyr University in her 22nd year as a faculty member teaching naturopathic medicine history, clinical theory, and global context. Among her Naturopathic medicine professional roles she serves on the Institute for Natural Medicine’s Leadership Council.  In 1989, she co-led the naturopathic profession with Dr. Jared Zeff, in developing a unifying definition of naturopathic medicine and its principles of practice adopted unanimously by the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) House of Delegates. She was a co-investigator in the 2004 NIH NCCAM research study, the North American Naturopathic Medical Research Agenda and CAM Advisor in NIHCCAM’s Financing Integrative Health Care (University of Washington).  Her areas of experience include healthcare education; naturopathic and interdisciplinary clinical theory, curriculum development; clinical practice; government and legislative affairs, public policy, interdisciplinary collaboration, and community organizing.  Dr. Snider has received the Ontario Naturopathic Physician of the Year Award, the Physician of the Year Award from the AANP, the President’s Outstanding Vision Award and Distinguished Alumnus Award at Bastyr University, AANP’s President’s Award, an honorary Doctorate of Naturopathic Philosophy from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM), the William A Mitchell Vis Award from the AANP and The Gathering – NMSA’s Beacon Award. She received her ND degree in 1982 from Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences and is a licensed naturopathic physician in the State of Washington. She lives with her husband and children at their homestead in North Bend Washington, in the beautiful mountain to sea landscape and home of The Revival – Restore the Vis, an annual student-led community gathering.

Susan Haeger

Susan Haeger is Founder/Principal of Transformative Health Solutions Inc. She has applied her twenty plus years in executive leadership to help shape and drive adoption of progressive health policy for whole person healthcare. She was a section contributor to the 2021 INM/AANP published professional white paper, Naturopathic Physicians as Whole Health Specialists: The Future is Whole Person Health Care that provides supporting evidence for the profession’s significant and unique contributions to preventive, whole person care and models of integrative clinical practice.

Bruce Barlean

Bruce Barlean is an owner and founder of Barlean’s, a global dietary supplement manufacturer located in the Pacific Northwest in Ferndale, WA. Bruce has been actively involved in the Natural Products industry since 1989 and is passionate about making a difference in the world and positively impacting the lives of others.

Bruce believes that people can make a difference in the world through ordinary purchases. He is committed to improving the quality of life for every person on the planet by making the best products and by using the profits to support outreach programs. Bruce summarizes it simply, “We make good stuff to do good stuff”.

In the late 1980’s Bruce became passionate about how health could be dramatically improved with Flax Oil Supplementation. Bruce along with his entrepreneurial parents saw the potential to improve the lives of many people and in 1989 they began selling Flax Oil under the Barlean’s name. From 1989 – 2000 the business grew an average of 40% year over year. While most companies saw a decline in business in the 2001 recession, Barlean’s continued to grow and soon became America’s #1 selling flaxseed oil and continues to be to the present. The brand has since expanded to include additional oils, green food concentrates and other premium supplements. Bruce continues to drive innovation and over the years his products and company have won countless awards including: Eight consecutive Vity Awards for #1 EFA, Six consecutive Vity Awards for #1 Greens Food Supplement, Natural Choice Award for Best Specialty Supplement, Best Product of the Year, Best New Product, Gold Medal Taster’s Choice Award, Gold Medal American Masters of Taste Award, #1 Health Food Store Brand for Consumer Satisfaction by Consumer Lab, and Manufacturer of the Year.

In 2013 as the company was on the eve of celebrating the 25th year in business Bruce and his parents decided to take their desire to help people to a new level that they call Pathway to a Better Life – which is now seen in the Barlean’s logo. Bruce and his parents had always been generous in their giving and support of charities, but as part of the Pathway to a Better Life they decided to increased partnership with charitable organizations such as: Vitamin Angels, Compassion International, KidsTown International, Autism Hope Alliance, Engedi Refuge, Project 92, and others. And because so many people are unable to meet basic nutritional needs, Bruce created a comprehensive Omega-3 and multivitamin formula that he distributes free-of-charge to local food banks. In addition, Bruce decided the company would supply food banks with organic coconut oil to provide people with a health alternative to standard cooking oils.

Always generous with his time Bruce has served as a youth leader for his local church for several years and continues to mentor youth. He has been on several not for profit boards including; Whatcom County Pregnancy Center (2003-2006), Natural Products Association (dates?), and the Institute for Natural Medicine Leadership Council (presently).

The Barlean family have been avid supporters of Bastyr University since the 1990’s and in 2013 were given Bastyr’s most prestigious honor, the Mission Award, which recognizes their leadership over time in improving the health and well-being of the human community.

Bruce currently resides in Ferndale, WA with his wife Lisa and their two dogs: Heinz & Shadow. When he’s not helping others he can be found fishing (catch & release).

Get Involved!

Michelle Simon, PHD, ND

President & CEO

As president and CEO of INM, Dr. Simon brings her passion for working with organizations dedicated to improving the quality and delivery of healthcare. This desire stems from her years of practice as a licensed naturopathic physician. In addition to holding a Naturopathic Doctorate from Bastyr University she also holds a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

She has served on boards for the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP), the Naturopathic Physicians Research Institute (NPRI), and several advisory boards. Dr. Simon served nine years on the Washington State Health Technology Clinical Committee, as Ambassador to the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine (AIHM) and was recognized as 2018 AANP Physician of the Year. Dr. Simon shares with her husband a passion for adventure travel, preferably by boat or motorcycle. She also enjoys teaching a women’s off-road motorcycling class.