On Your Health

Check back to the INTEGRIS On Your Health blog for the latest health and wellness news for all Oklahomans.

Can Spending Time in Nature Change Your Brain?

Over the last hundred years or so, the world has grown increasingly urban as people flocked to cities for jobs, entertainment, community and convenience, with more than half of the earth’s population living in urban areas. Yet many recent studies have suggested the health benefits of nature are substantial and the stresses of city life can cause negative side effects both physically and emotionally.

Why is this? Researchers aren’t exactly sure, but a variety of studies have suggested that spending time in nature can change our brains in more ways than one.

How does nature affect mental health?

According to The New York Times, “Various studies have found that urban dwellers with little access to green spaces have a higher incidence of psychological problems than people living near parks and that city dwellers who visit natural environments have lower levels of stress hormones immediately afterward than people who have not recently been outside.”

In fact, those who live in cities have a 20 percent higher risk of anxiety disorders and a 40 percent higher risk of mood disorders compared to people who live in rural areas.

In a 2006 study from the magazine American Scientist, natural scenes triggered an increase in the interactions of the pleasure receptors of the brain’s visual cortex. Other studies have indicated that pushing through highly trafficked city streets can increase production of cortisol by the adrenal glands, which can result in a weakened immune system, lower bone density, weight gain, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Does this mean all city dwellers should pick up and move to the country? Not necessarily.

How to incorporate nature into your wellness routine

A study led by Stanford found that simply taking walks in the scenic outdoors can help. You don’t have to actually live in nature to reap the benefits, but being outside should be part of your daily routine. If you’re an Oklahoma City resident, here are a few tips for bringing nature to you.

Take a daily walk through a park or green space

Most cities have parks, green spaces or botanical gardens for residents to enjoy. Take advantage of that. On your lunch break from work or in the evening, take a 30-minute stroll through a natural area with green grass, plants and trees.

Oklahoma City offers a variety of options to enjoy nature right here in the city, including the Myriad Botanical Gardens, Martin Park Nature Center and Lake Hefner. You could even join a local bike group to explore OKC's excellent trails.

Fill your space with natural light and plants

Many city dwellers spend most of their time indoors due to work. Make sure your living and working spaces provide natural sunlight and fill your area with live plants.

Studies have indicated that having contact with plants in the office can reduce perceptions of stress and increase feelings of well-being. Another study featured in Psychology Today found that natural light in a workplace improved sleep, activity and quality of life ratings. If cold weather keeps you indoors, explore light therapy.

Take vacations in natural settings

While many of us enjoy traveling to new cities during our time off, there are many benefits of unplugging and enjoying a vacation in a more remote area. Go to the beach or the mountains, try camping, a float trip, a ski trip, a fishing trip, or plan nature walks and hiking trips through nearby areas. Engaging in nature on your time off can help you reset and feel replenished before returning to city life.

Grow your own garden

Most of us already know gardening is a great way to exercise, but spending time outside while you maintain a garden is good for the mind, too. When you’re planting, raking, watering and harvesting, levels of serotonin and dopamine (the happy hormones that make us feel good) rise thanks to the exercise, while cortisol (the stress hormone) lowers.

Plus, looking after a garden keeps us connected to other living things, gives us a sense of responsibility and allows us to be nurturers. And it’s so exciting to eat the first tomato you’ve grown yourself!

At INTEGRIS, we value complementary therapies that treat the whole person. Horticulture therapy is just one way we embrace nature in the healing process. Learn more about how Integrative Medicine can pair western medicine with holistic practices for better overall wellness.