It’s more than just a happy mindset — it’s in the air.
It’s no secret that our overall well-being benefits from taking a walk in the forest or a stroll down the beach — scientists have been telling us that nature has these positive effects for a while now. Other evidence has shown that exposure to green space, even in urban environments, boosts physical and mental-wellbeing.
While it’s known that exposure to nature benefits our bodies and minds, how exactly does it have this powerful effect?
A team of Japanese researchers travelled to Yakushima, an island famous for its biodiversity, in order to explore the mechanisms behind nature’s ability to make us feel happier and healthier. Interestingly, the Japanese already had a name for the experience of well-being, called shinrin-yoku, which translates to “forest bathing.”
Based on their findings, the scientists suggest that we take in beneficial substances when we breathe in forest air from three major inhaled factors — beneficial bacteria, plant-derived essential oils, and negatively-charged ions.
This “good” bacteria surrounds us, and through its interactions with our bodies — particularly our gut-dwelling bacteria — we get boosts of health and happiness. There’s an ever-growing body of evidence that our gut health has a major influence on both our physical and mental well-being. Research has shown that our gut cells influence our metabolism, immune function, and mental health — one study even suggested that altering gut microbes could be key to curing anorexia.
The plants in nature also play a huge role in our health, thanks to their plant essential oils called phytoncides, which literally means “plant-derived exterminators.” These oils fight off harmful microorganisms, and a recent study found that phytoncide from Korean pine trees improved the health and bacterial make-up of pigs.
Now for the third inhaled factor in nature, the scientists say there are relatively high levels of negative air ions in forests and close to bodies of water. Since evidence shows that these ions may positively boost our mental outlooks, that could be why we feel the health benefits of taking a walk on the beach or trekking along a forest trail.
In fact, experts say that once negative ions reach our bloodstreams, they produce biochemical reactions that increase levels of serotonin in our bodies, hence helping to relieve stress and alleviate depression.
The beneficial bacteria, plant essential oils, and negative ions all interact and influence each other, and their synergy may command the microbial make-up within the natural environment. Similarly, these three substances could positively affect the human gut through inhalation.
Despite these findings, researchers say there is still more work to be done to understand the important functions of biophilia — in which an individual feels connected to nature — and its mechanisms behind our improved health.
Nonetheless, being connected with nature indisputably has positive effects on our bodies and minds.
In the recent World Health Organization report, ‘Connecting Global Priorities - Biodiversity and Human Health,’ the report concluded: “The relationships our individual bodies have with our microbiomes are a microcosm for the vital relationships our species shares with countless other organisms with which we share the planet."