By Ellie Chapman
Ellie followed her passion for the natural world by training and working nationally and internationally in Ecology. She has co-written and contributed to scientific papers on environmental and conservation issues and spent the last 15 years seeking to understand the link between nature and well-being, nutrition, stress management, mental health, chronic illness and environmental toxicity. Ellie has experience of improving well-being at the corporate/organisational level and working with individuals. She had her own experience of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome before completing a 2800 km canoeing expedition as part of her return to full health. Ellie now works to improve the lives of others through health and business coaching, education and training.
An introduction to the Biophilia Hypothesis
I’ve been reading with fascination as the evidence and research on the benefits of nature for our wellbeing grows. As early as 1984 Biologist E.O Wilson wrote about the Biophilia hypothesis – the concept that humans possess an innate desire to seek connections with nature. “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction” he wrote. Research by Ulrich on the length of patient hospital stays illustrated just how biophilia effects our physiology. Post operation patients left hospital earlier and took less pain medication if they had views of a green space compared to those who looked on urban scapes.
Psychologist Steve Kaplan coined the term Attention Restoration Theory to explain how mental fatigue and concentration can be improved by time spent in, or simply by looking at nature. He measured that just one hour in nature can boost our cognitive ability by 20% due to the restorative effects on our neurology. Pretty impressive figures by all accounts.
So why do we have this intrinsic link with nature amidst our wanton need for technology? It appears that the majority of our evolutionary journey took place in the early part of our history as modern humans roamed the savanna as hunter/gatherers from around 200,000 years ago. We are still genetically hardwired to be in the environment that once was home and we are still programmed to use our senses to detect impending changes in humidity, pressure and localised danger that helped us flourish in the hunter/gatherer lifestyle. This heightened radar for sensing danger arguably exists most acutely in around 15-20% of our population today, termed Highly Sensitive Persons by psychologist Elaine Aron. During hunter/gatherer times this characteristic proved a highly effective early warning detection system, helping us survive harsh environments and avoiding predators.
So what exactly does nature do for us?
It’s an impressive list really: Japanese researchers investigating the effects of Shrinrin-Yoku or forest bathing discovered “forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments. Results are contributing to the development of a research dedicated to forest medicine, which may be used as a strategy for preventive medicine.” This is partly explained by Phytoncide – a natural substance emitted by trees and plants to protect them from insects and pathogens. Studies show that forest environments boost human immune systems by enhancing natural killer cell activity, the number of NK cells, and intracellular anti-cancer proteins in lymphocytes. Interestingly the increased NK activity lasted for more than 7 days after trips to forests.
So, with around 80% of us in the UK living in urban environments could this be in part why preventative diseases are on the rise? Some researchers think so. We are a fish out of water so to speak and the stress of forcing our attention on the volume and type of information that are brains are simply not designed to process, coupled with urban pollution is taking it’s toll. Of course the common response to the run away health issues in modern society is often “but we are just living longer”. However, talk to an anthropologist and they will tell you that the human potential for longevity is not a product of modern living; instead, it appears to be a genetic characteristic shared by all Homo sapiens prior to the advent of agriculture around 12,000 ago. Advances in medical technology support that inherent longevity and can be seen in moderate lifespan increases in acculturated hunter/gatherers, but they aren’t solely responsible for it.
So is nature really Vitamin N? What if this is just another scientific hypothesis waiting to be disproved in years to come? Well, what does your inner compass tell you? Which environment helps makes you feel calm, amazed and refreshed all at once?
Here are some ideas to help connect with nature:
- Get outside every day at lunch time wind, rain or shine – especially important during winter months when sunlight is reduced effecting vitamin D production. A post-lunch walk balances blood sugar and triglycerides. According to research at Bristol uni, lunch time exercise boosts afternoon productivity and exercise in nature is even better. Can you afford not to take a break?
- Find a spot and sit down – nature-based meditation is incredibly relaxing. Choose somewhere that is interesting, the more biodiverse the better. Focus on nature around you and allow your mind to settle. Being in nature switches our brains from beta waves to alpha almost instantly. Beta waves are useful for problem solving but in the long term can lead to anxiety. Alpha waves are associated with boosted creativity, relaxation and reduced depression. Sitting quietly in one of Bristol’s nearby reserves can bring encounters with deer and other animals that you otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to connect with and it’s really quite magical.
- Get your hands in the dirt – soil bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae has been found to trigger the release of serotonin, which can elevate mood in those lacking in this neurotransmitter. Gardening is a great way to do this! The average western society human holds 50% less diverse gut bacteria than our hunter/gather ancestors. We are only just beginning to understand the importance of connecting with diverse micro-nature for our health and longevity but the greater numbers of bacteria species on our skin and in our guts has been linked to better health.
- Use all your senses – notice colours, textures, smells, sounds and focus on objects at all of your focal range. Give your brain a massage by indulging it beauty, biodiverse environments and allow yourself to be curious and fascinated. Both the sound and the sight of water is particularly powerful for us but find what works for you.
- Bring nature to you – even the colour green and pictures of nature are better than no nature at all. Change your screen saver, add desk top nature scenes, hang pictures and cultivate pot plants. Replace the office chemical toilet sprays with essential oils.
- Indulge in a day of ‘Wellbeing in the Woods’ – take things a step further and combine the benefits of nature with positive thinking, nourishment, relaxation techniques, movement and breathing to bring about an enhanced and lasting state of wellbeing. Courses will be taking place at Hawkwood College in Stroud this Spring so keep an eye out!
You can contact Ellie on [email protected]
Wellbeing in the Woods is a bespoke course designed for people who really want to improve their wellbeing through creating lasting positive change. We are designed to be in a natural environment and so part of this course is about exploring ways to immerse our senses to bring about restorative benefits and part is about using nature as a backdrop to enhance learning.
Do you feel life is busy, becoming busier and it’s easy to let things slip whilst caught in the flow? Is it fair to say you sometimes know there are things you can do that help you feel healthier, happier and have more energy and yet finding the motivation to continue doing these things is really what you’re after? Set in a stunning nature-rich environment, this course explores what we can do to improve our health and happiness and crucially, how we can make changes to bring about lasting benefits. Fundamental to our wellbeing, the 6 Pillars are things we do anyway – eat, move, relax, breathe, think – so why not learn how to maximise their benefits and:
- Nourish yourself for maximum health. Think positively and achieve your goals.
- Relax and recharge your body and mind.
- Use movement to detox and embed change.
- Breathe to instantly bring a sense of calm and focus.
- Connect with nature and experience incredible benefits.