Healing by Wilderness

October 31, 2013

Healing by Wilderness

by Jamie Waddell

You might imagine that advocates of leading an outdoor existence would fall into two camps: Bear Grylls-esque survivalists who expound the health benefits of drinking your own urine and eating grubs, or free-spirit transcendentalists who wax-on about how immersion in nature “really aligns the chakras”.

If you’re as much of a skeptic as I am you’ll be happy to know that there has recently been a wealth of scientific research that finally adds empirical clout to these formerly anecdotal claims. Read on to discover how and why getting out in the country can enhance mental wellbeing, make you better rested and even stave off cancer.

Healing Light

Since the dawn of man the general consensus has been that light’s pretty awesome. Whether it be the Egyptian Sun god Ra, Zoroastrianism’s Ahura Mazda (Illuminating Wisdom) or the fiery wisdom handed down at Pentecost in the Christian canon; light brings happiness, wisdom, and wellbeing.

What’s more, medical science actually backs up the claims of ancient religious tradition. Scientists at the University of Colorado recently found that, on average, people on camping trips are exposed to 400% more sunlight than during their day-to-day lives. Sunlight benefits the human body in a multitude of ways.

It causes the body to create vitamin D, which medical science is starting to suggest is the best of the vitamin alphabet. Whilst other vitamins are necessary, epidemiologic studies are showing that vitamin D may have protective properties that will fight against such diverse ailments as depression, heart disease, stroke and even cancer.

Natural light, rather than the man-made light that is such a major presence in modern life, is crucial for achieving a healthy sleep pattern. The aforementioned University of Colorado researchers measured a group of volunteers’ melatonin levels during their normal lives and whilst on a camping trip. Melatonin is the hormone which causes sleepiness in humans and should be highest in the bloodstream just before we go to sleep and at its lowest just after we wake up.

During their lives in the city, however, melatonin levels were still high in the bloodstream several hours after waking. After just a few days camping without man-made light, melatonin levels normalized as their sleep patterns began to synchronize with the rising and setting sun. They were, in essence, getting back to a natural rhythm for humans. Subsequently, the volunteers confirmed that they felt better rested than they had been before the trip.

Country Walks Cure Cancer

Well, maybe not cure, but there has been research that suggests being in the country can drastically bolster your immune system and aid in recovery.

Professor Richard Ulrich studied American patients all recovering from gall-bladder surgery. He split the patients into two groups: those whose rooms had views of trees and those whose windows faced buildings.

The results suggested that trees have a natural calming effect on humans, as patients in sight of foliage required less pain-relieving medication and went home two to three days before their brick-facing cohorts. What’s more, this effect extends to hospital staff and visitors, meaning hospitals with a lot of fauna could be more efficient, happier places.

Okay, I predict you’re rolling your eyes a bit at that last one, it seems like there are quite a few variables that weren’t take into account such as the patient’s age, sex and general health even before their operation. And I agree. Luckily, the Japanese conducted a far less woolly experiment that actually draws from their unique Shinto traditions.

Studies undertaken by the Nippon Medical School into the ancient art of shinrin-yoku (forest walking), a folkloric practice intended to promote wellness through immersion in nature, have shown that there may be some truth behind the myth.

Whilst Japanese 500 years ago would attribute greater wellness to a kindly kami (god or spirit, for lack of a better word)encountered during their time in the woods, the researchers actually found that walks in Japan’s admittedly awe-inspiring forests actually promoted the creation of natural killer cells (NK), lymphocytes that fight off infection.

A dozen Japanese men had their NK levels taken during their normal workaday lives. They then had the same tests done twice during a three-day shinrin-yoku. The results were nothing short of astounding. Not only were the NK levels much higher than in the pre-forest walking sample but the levels remained consistently high for nearly a month after the trip had ended.

The researchers were understandably very excited, as NK cells are effective at battling cancer, and they are currently undertaking greater research to determine exactly why this is the case.

It appears that the gritty survivalists and tree-huggers may be on to something – maybe a more natural existence is the way to go to improve health and wellbeing. If just getting out in the sun and amongst the trees for a short spell every month can have drastic effects on your body, perhaps it’s time we all put down the iPads and got off social media and just took a walk in the woods.

Image Credit: Mark Sebastian – http://www.flickr.com/photos/markjsebastian/4272090259