How Nature Heals Us

Fresh air, sunlight and plants have medicinal powers — try to get a dose, even now.

blue sky and trees

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has surfaced an interesting paradox: While we’ve all been cloistered inside, hiding from a virus that attacks our lungs, the so-called “lungs of the earth” (aka trees) are doing their thing and helping to heal the environment — without us getting in the way.

Thanks to a sharp reduction in the carbon emissions we typically generate when we’re not locked down, the air outside has cleared up significantly. The Himalayan mountains can be seen in northern India for the first time in decades and the smog in Los Angeles has lifted. In fact, the global decline in pollution has been so dramatic it can be seen from space.

Just hearing that makes you want to take a deep breath — that is, if you weren’t afraid illness-causing particles were wafting through the air. But here’s the thing: In most cases, spending time outdoors is much more likely to heal you than hurt you. As renowned naturist and author John Muir said in 1912, "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike."

Muir's contemporaries in the medical field grew to believe the same. Open-air treatment, as it’s called, was discovered over a hundred years ago during another outbreak — the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. “Medics found that severely ill flu patients nursed outdoors recovered better than those treated indoors," noted Robert Hobday, researcher and author of the book The Healing Sun, in this post on Medium. "A combination of fresh air and sunlight seems to have prevented deaths among patients and infections among medical staff. There is scientific support for this. Research shows that outdoor air is a natural disinfectant… sunlight is germicidal and there is now evidence it can kill the flu virus.”

Big caveat: There is currently no evidence that sunlight kills the novel coronavirus (on masks or on you) or that living in warmer climates offers protection. The point to be taken is simply that spending time outdoors can boost immunity and overall health. Here, some tips for harnessing Vitamin N (as in nature), safely and responsibly:

Exercise Outdoors On Your Own

Even while the stay-at-home orders are in effect, most states are allowing citizens to visit parks and other public areas for brief periods of time to exercise, knowing that working out boosts immunity and serves as an incredible stress reliever. But social distancing rules still apply. Before heading out, check an app (such as AllTrails) to help you find the least-crowded spaces near you.

Take a Forest Bath — Even in the City

Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, is a Japanese wellness practice that involves mindfully immersing yourself in a natural atmosphere to restore well-being and relax the mind. Research has found that “nature therapy” improves your mood, boosts your immune system and can even lower blood pressure. Learn how to practice forest bathing here.

Similarly, a practice called earthing — touching the ground with your bare feet — can reap health benefits. How so? Making direct physical contact with the vast supply of electrons on the surface of the earth promotes physical and psychological equilibrium and supports the body's immune and inflammatory responses. Just standing or walking in circles on a small patch of grass can do the trick. 

Soak Up a Little Sun

It's widely accepted that maintaining healthy vitamin D levels has a correlation to immunity, and studies have specifically proven its impact on influenza. Many health experts (save for dermatologists) believe that 10 to 15 minutes of unprotected exposure to sunlight is a decent way to boost levels, so even stepping into your backyard or onto a balcony can supply a beneficial amount. Direct sunlight can also reset your circadian rhythms, which can improve sleep — another immune-system modulator.

If you can’t safely get outdoors, sit by a sunny window for a short time. Worst case scenario: Augment your supplement game with some extra vitamin D, which is contained in THE WELL’s Immunity Complex. According to Dr. Frank Lipman, THE WELL’s Chief Medical Officer, ideally, your levels should be in the 50 to 70mg/ml range, so have your doctor test yours when you can.

For most people — especially those who live in the northern hemisphere — a daily maintenance dose of 2,000 IUs of vitamin D3 a day could do the trick. People with darker skin tones may need additional supplementation since pigment-producing melanin decreases the absorption from the sun's rays.

Direct sunlight can also reset your circadian rhythms, which can improve sleep — another immune-system modulator.

Make Friends with a Tree

In her video series Walk With Walsh, storyteller and wellness advocate Jennifer Walsh goes on strolls with CEOs, founders, innovators and philanthropists to talk about the role nature plays in culture and personal health. "The migration indoors has been exacerbated by the quarantine period, but it didn't start there," says Walsh. "We were already moving in that direction as a modern society." And that trend is bad for our health. "Our senses are atrophying," continues Walsh. "We are not touching, smelling or seeing things in the natural world like we did decades ago."

One way to get back in touch: Buddy up to a tree. Pinene, the terpene (aromatic organic compound) produced by conifers (pines) has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, analgesic and even anti-tumor properties per this study; the minty scent emitted by eucalyptus trees is anti-depressive, as well as an effective cough suppressant.

When you can't get outside, turn to aromatherapy. The organic compounds found in essential oils are largely composed of terpenes and terpenoids, so diffusing them can also help to elevate your mental and physical state. (Shop THE WELL's essential oil blends here.)

Walk or Bike to Get Where You’re Going

In urban areas, it pays to walk or bike on those essential-errand runs. (In New York City, use of Citibikes has spiked during the pandemic.) Just having fewer cars on the road can and has resulted in a meaningful decrease in the pollutant nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which can irritate and inflame the lungs and increase the risk of asthma. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), longer exposures to nitrogen dioxide may potentially increase susceptibility to respiratory infections.

Now, more than ever, we have reason to heed that warning.

bike in apartment
Double down on health benefits by getting some outdoor exercise.

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