Stress. In today’s world escaping it is virtually impossible. While stress can be a useful motivator when experienced in small measures, helping you to perform better under pressure or motivate you to be your best, when it becomes a continual state of being, one in which you continually feel agitated, anxious, overwhelmed and struggling to cope, your body and mind can end up paying the price. All of this is nothing new, but just how do realistically combat stress in modern life?
New research shows that spending just 20 minutes of your day in a place that makes you feel connected to nature can significantly lower the levels of stress hormones in the body, which can do a world of good for your health and well-being1.
The ‘nature pill’
Over the years research has proven that our environment plays a pivotal role in the creating or reduction of the stress response, which in turn affects our bodies and minds. Everything you hear, see or experience throughout your day can not only change your mood but also how your nervous, endocrine and immune systems function.
Stressful environments that cause you to feel frustrated, anxious, helpless or sad can have a profound effect on your heart rate, raise your blood pressure and increase muscle tension while also suppressing your immune system function as the body prioritises its functions according to the stress response experienced. Over the long term, this can have serious health effects. Pleasant environments, on the other hand, have the opposite effect on our emotions and physiological responses.
It’s no secret that spending time in nature has profound, beneficial effects on human health and well-being. A number of scientific studies have proven this time and time again, especially when it comes to nature’s ability to reduce physiological and psychological stress2,3.
However, there has been little research into what form of nature experience is required, when it should take place as well as how long it needs to be for maximum health benefits. A recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan aimed to address these questions. Their findings were published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology this week and may serve as incentive for healthcare practitioners to write ‘nature pill’ prescriptions knowing that these do, in fact, have very real and measurable effects.
Finding a natural solution to stress
For the purposes of this study researchers MaryCarol Hunter and her fellow researchers Brenda Gillespie and Sophie Chen recruited 36 urban dwellers who agreed to take part in the eight week study. The recruits were asked to engage in a ‘nature experience’ during which they would spend time outdoors in a place that made them feel connected to nature, at any time of their choosing at least 3 times per week for 10 minutes or more.
The study was built around personal flexibility so that the researchers could identify the optimal duration of a nature experience regardless of where and when it was enjoyed, in the normal setting and circumstances of modern life, which is prone to intense scheduling and unpredictability.
There were, however, some constraints. In order to minimise the factors that have proven to contribute to stress, researchers asked the participants to:
- Participate in nature experiences during the day (night time outings may increase certain individual’s feelings of vulnerability and stress)
- Avoid aerobic exercise during their nature experience (intense exercise can be perceived as stress by the body)
- Refrain from using social media and the internet as well as avoid phone calls, reading and conversations
The group also provided saliva samples before and after nature experiences at four points during the study. These samples were used to measure changes in two physiological biomarkers of stress, salivary cortisol and alpha-amylase.
In stressful situations, cortisol, often referred to as ‘the stress hormone’ provides the body with glucose for energy that assists in the fight or flight response to stressful situations. Likewise, alpha-amylase, a major enzyme present in the mouth, is involved in the breakdown of starch and glycogen for energy and also increases during periods of stress and anxiety4. As such, levels of these substances can be useful when measuring they body’s endocrine and sympathetic stress response respectively.
The findings revealed that a short 20 minute nature experience was sufficient to significantly lower cortisol levels. Drops in alpha-amylase levels were only noted in participants who were least active, spending their time sitting or doing limited walking.
Overall the results showed that 20 to 30 minute stints spent sitting or walking in nature had the greatest stress-reducing effect. In nature experiences longer than this, additional stress-reduction benefits were noted, but these accumulated at a much slower rate, as such, 20-30 minute sessions were regarded as optimal.
The researchers involved hope that their findings will be used as a tool in further research to assess how age, gender, seasonality, culture and physical ability influence the efficacy of nature experiences on wellbeing. These factors will further assist health practitioners in customising ‘nature prescriptions’ for those suffering from stress and also give deeper insight into how cities should be designed and wellbeing programs developed for the public.
Putting these findings into action for your own benefit
The growing trend towards urbanisation means that most of us spend less time exposed to natural environments. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t find one with a little effort. Also remember that a ‘nature experience’ is subjective and is really about what you consider nature to be. For some it’s forests and rivers, for others the ocean. For those in inland urban settings it may be the local dog park, a roof garden, an open field, the nearby botanical gardens or a nursery filled with plants and flowers, or even a backyard to just sit in and watch the birds or lie in and stare at the clouds.
Whatever nature is for you, find that while also ensuring that it is a place that is safe (as feeling unsafe or anxious, even in a natural space can stress you out, defeating the object altogether). Then make a point to visit for 20 to 30 minutes three times a week to unplug from the world and just be in that space and see what a difference it makes.
How reducing stress can benefit your health and finances
There is a growing body of evidence that chronic stress not only contributes to the development of illness and disease, but also exacerbates many existing health issues5,6. These include:
- Digestive issues: Stress can cause a delayed emptying of the stomach and increased colon activity which can cause stomach ache and diarrhoea respectively.
- A weakened immune system: Stress causes the body to suppress the immune system as part of the stress response. This often leads to increased numbers of infections and health complaints.
- Nervous system disruption: Stress affects the nervous system and can contribute to anxiety, depression, sleep disruption and an overall decline in physical activity as well as compromised cognitive function.
- Weight gain and obesity: Long-term stress and the associated chronic glucocorticoid exposure (i.e. exposure to the hormones that produce a wide variety of effects in response to stress) promote energy storage as fat, especially around the abdomen. In addition, stress may lead to increases in appetite and cravings for sugary or fatty foods in some. All of these factors influence weight gain and may contribute to the development of obesity, which in turn leads to a predisposition to a number of diseases including diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
- Cardiovascular disease: High blood pressure, an elevated heart rate, increased blood fats (cholesterol and triglycerides) and blood sugar (glucose) levels as well as the weight gain induced by stress are all contributing factors to the development of heart and cardiovascular diseases, heart attack and stroke.
Ensuring that you have adequate healthcare and medications to manage these types of chronic health concerns can be time-consuming and costly. On the other hand, managing your stress levels when combined with healthy eating and regular exercise can make a significant difference to your overall health.
Spending time in nature a few times a week as the study suggests is a low-cost (and in many instances free) way to help you tackle the effects of stress and improve both your physical and mental well-being.
We challenge you to give it a try for 8 weeks and let us know how you feel.
1. Hunter M, Gillespie B, Chen S. Urban Nature Experiences Reduce Stress in the Context of Daily Life Based on Salivary Biomarkers. Front Psychol. 2019;10. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00722
2. Ewert A, Chang Y. Levels of Nature and Stress Response. Behavioral Sciences. 2018;8(5):49. doi:10.3390/bs8050049
3. Pearson D, Craig T. The great outdoors? Exploring the mental health benefits of natural environments. Front Psychol. 2014;5. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01178
4. Petrakova L, Doering B, Vits S et al. Psychosocial Stress Increases Salivary Alpha-Amylase Activity Independently from Plasma Noradrenaline Levels. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(8):e0134561. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0134561
5. McEwen B, Sapolsky R. Stress and Your Health. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. 2006;91(2):0-0. doi:10.1210/jcem.91.2.9994
6. Scott K, Melhorn S, Sakai R. Effects of Chronic Social Stress on Obesity. Curr Obes Rep. 2012;1(1):16-25. doi:10.1007/s13679-011-0006-3