The mental and physical health benefits of ecotherapy

There are countless studies that prove ecotherapy (often referred to as nature therapy) is beneficial for your physical and mental health.

Photo by Song_about_summer on Shutterstock
  • What was once considered a simple practice and ideology about the benefits of nature has been proven in multiple studies to positively impact our physical and mental health.
  • Some of the benefits of spending time in nature can be: a boost in killer-cells that fight off viruses, an ability to maintain focus and improvement in mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and other mood disorders.
  • To explain the all-encompassing benefits of nature, the Japanese have coined the term "shinrin yoku", which translates to "forest bathing."

Ecotherapy (also referred to as nature therapy) has been proven to be effective and is used in various practices and cultures around the world—and yet, it is still one of the most under-appreciated forms of therapy.

For a period of time, nature therapy was considered a simple practice for those who believe that we are connected to and impacted by the natural environments around us. However, there is now more research to support this ideology.

How nature therapy works to better your physical and mental health

forest and trees concept of nature therapy ecotherapy

A simple walk in the forest can have more of a positive impact on your health than you may realize.

Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash

The benefits of nature have been studied for decades. In fact, in 1982, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries coined the term "shinrin yoku", which means "forest bathing."

Nature increases activity in natural killer cells that fight off viruses.

While we stroll around the forest, breathing in the fresh air, airborne chemicals like phytoncides (a chemical many plants give off to fight disease) are also entering our system. When this happens, the human body responds by increasing the number of natural killer blood cells (a type of white blood cell) which attack virus-infected cells.

In one 2009 study, participants spent 3 days/2 nights in a forested area. Their blood and urine were sampled before, during, and after the trip. Natural killer cell activity measured significantly higher during the days spent in the forest and the effect lasted up to 30 days after the trip.

This suggests that a few days in nature every month could potentially allow your natural killer cell activity to maintain at a higher functioning level, protecting you better.

Spending time in nature has numerous mental health benefits.

This groundbreaking research analysis of 10 UK studies involving over 1200 participants considered all the ways time in nature (known as green exercise) can improve a person's mental health and wellbeing.

The results of this analysis proved that both men and women have similar self-esteem improvements after experiencing time spent in nature, and the boost in mood particularly impacted men. The analysis showed the greatest improvements in mental health with the participants who were struggling with a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety.

A more recent study looked at the relationship between psychological responses and forest environments. Using the Profile of Mood States questionnaire, this research found that time spent in nature significantly decreased the scores for anxiety, depression, anger, confusion, and fatigue.

A walk in nature is more beneficial than a walk in the city.

Results of a 2008 study compared the restorative effects of natural versus urban environments, with natural environments proving vastly more beneficial. Nature, which is filled with intriguing stimuli, is able to modestly grab your attention in a way that requires no effort or additional actions. Urban areas can be filled with stimulation that captures your attention and requires additional directed actions (for example, stopping at a crosswalk).

This is why a walk in nature is much more beneficial for our minds than a walk in an urban setting—our minds are able to "switch off," giving time for restorative rest.

Nature related activities may be of use in future ADHD therapies.

Directed Attention Fatigue (DAF) is something you may be struggling with without even realizing it. It's a very common neuro-psychological phenomenon that results in the overuse of the brain's attention mechanisms. These mechanisms typically work for us to help us cope with distraction while maintaining on a specific task, but when we overuse that function, it becomes weaker and our ability to focus on task lessens.

Along with that, the part of the brain affected by attention fatigue (the right frontal cortex) is also involved in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This study shows that children diagnosed with ADHD who spent time in natural outdoor environments show a reduction in ADHD symptoms. This is promising for the field of ADHD research, as nature therapy could potentially be used as part of an all-encompassing treatment plan.

Various therapies have been incorporating nature-related benefits for years, including:

While research continues on the benefits of nature, one thing has been made clear through decades of study and practice: Nature is good for your health, likely in more ways than we can even imagine.

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New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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