As the need to protect our natural world becomes more pressing than ever, understanding its importance for the healthy function of our bodies and minds can highlight our need to feel part of nature.
A closer relationship to the natural world is always beneficial, on any level. Urban living puts us into the constant alert state of hypervigilance, as evidenced by a 21% increased risk of anxiety disorders, 39% increased risk of mood disorders in towns, and incidence of schizophrenia twice as high for those raised in cities (Peen et al 2010 ). Another study showed that the brains of those living in cities were more active in two areas; the amygdala, the danger centre of the brain and the cingulate cortex, involved in controlling emotion and dealing with environmental adversity – a recipe for depression and anxiety (Lederbogen et al 2011 ).
Much of the research in this area has focused on the growing alienation of children from nature and a review of the literature showed that time spent in green outdoors reduces children’s probability of being overweight, that being away from daily routines in this way increases relaxation, improves children’s mood, ability to focus and increases intergenerational social interactions, all of which help to reduce symptoms of learning difficulties such as ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) (Collado, Staats 2016 ).
We know that we feel better the more contact we have with nature, but the emotional resonance of the experience may be part of the reason it has been cast aside as we historically moved towards city living. Where modern, reductionist science removes the dirty business of emotions from the ‘mechanics’ of the body, more systemic and even quantum viewpoints show that our whole-life experience not only affects, but is never uncoupled from all-body-system expression and how these might manifest as dis-ease. We evolved within and as part of nature, and any separation and dominance of the natural world is detrimental to our whole beings, as well as the environment.
Psycho-neuro-immunology (PNI) is the study of the interaction between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems (Ader R, Cohen N 1975 ; Pert C 1999 ); it is sometimes referred to as the modern version of mind-body medicine, an acceptance that our physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual selves are completely intertwined and indeed only separated by language.
PNI is part of a move to an epigenetic, rather than a genetic stance about our bodies and health. Where genetics would say our genes programme everything we will be, epigenetics (epi- means ‘above’) states that while we start with some genetic predispositions, it is all of the aspects of our lives that shape how our whole beings respond. Our relationship with the natural world is a fundamental part of how we evolved and needs to be seen as part of the picture of our health.
Leo Pruimboom PhD is both a researcher in the PNI field and the founder of clinical psycho-neuro-immunology, through the Natura Foundation. With a particular focus on how living as our hunter-gatherer ancestors did (in consort with the land) and how this affects us metabolically and immunologically, for his 2017 thesis he followed 51 healthy test subjects and two people with fibromyalgia on a ten-day mimic of this Stone Age lifestyle (Pruimboom et al, 2017 ). The results clearly demonstrated beneficial effects on various health-related parameters, including significant decreases in body weight, BMI (body mass index) and regulation of factors such as insulin (the hormone that regulates blood sugar), triglycerides (fats in the bloodstream) and total cholesterol.
For his starting point, Pruimboom observed that chronic activation of the immune system is caused by the modern causative factors of overeating (with low vegetables, fruit and fish), sitting for protracted periods of time, insufficient sleep, physical inactivity and unresolved psycho-emotional problems. Accumulation of such risk factors prompts enduring activation of stress responses and bacteria entering the bloodstream, leading to chronic low-grade inflammation, which he believes should be regarded as the cause of most, if not all, chronic non-communicable diseases. He states that exposure to stress factors from our past as hunter-gatherers can have a beneficial effect on health and could help to prevent these typical ‘Western diseases of civilisation’ such as diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, cancer, arthritis, depression, autoimmune diseases and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
This study may have been a little extreme for many; the study stated that the subjects “engaged in a 10-day trip through the Pyrenees. They walked 14 km/day on average, carrying an 8-kilo backpack. Raw food was provided and self-prepared and water was obtained from waterholes. They slept outside in sleeping bags and were exposed to temperatures ranging from 12 to 42°C.” With samples taken before, along the way and after the trip, it was concluded that “coping with “ancient mild stress factors,” including physical exercise, thirst, hunger, and climate, may influence immune status and improve anthropometrics and metabolic indices in healthy subjects and possibly patients suffering from metabolic and immunological disorders.”
This positive stress is often referred to as ‘eustress’ and refers to these and other challenges that we need to provoke a resilience response. Weight-bearing exercise to prompt bone growth or working out a new route to exercise cognitive function are well-known, but this extends to our whole being. For this immune response to challenge, other studies have shown that mild stress initially produces a proinflammatory response, which may subsequently give rise to recovery from the reigning state of chronic low-grade inflammation and the return to homeostasis or balance of systems (Dhabhar 2013 , Dhabhar, McEwen 1997 ). This is of a very different nature to the damaging psycho-social stress from relentless emotional, information and technological overload in the developed world.
The stressors from nature encountered in this study trip and supported by previous evidence (Dhabhar et al 2012 ) shows that the immune system might have migrated to sites that have been most susceptible to the damaging effects of the environment during evolution, including those affecting the skin, the gastrointestinal tract, and the lungs, these needing the highest immune surveillance as places where potentially threatening substances can enter. The subjects on the trip showed symptoms in two of these regions – diarrhoea and small skin scratches – but all were stronger and more resilient by the end. This included one man with arrhythmia who stopped taking medication during the trip and did not suffer from arrhythmic periods in the 36-month period after the study end.
It is also factors the participants avoided that may have contributed to the positive results:
- They were disconnected from daily trouble and ruminations, reducing inflammatory internally-generated danger signals (Esch, Stefano 2010).
- Mobile telephones and other electronic devices were prohibited. It remains controversial, but chronic mobile telephone usage may activate stress systems (Hamzany et al 2013) and negatively affect the production of anti-inflammatory substances in saliva (Hasemipour et al 2014 ).
- Absence of artificial light with a where the sleep-wake cycle was not dominated by social life, the participants went to bed when the sun went down and rose with sunrise. Disrupting this “natural day-night rhythm” has been associated with inflammation, heart disease, obesity and depression (Kanterman et al 2013, Roenneberg et al 2012 , Levandovski et al 2011 ).
- Spontaneous physical activity before food and water intake which is known to lower the postprandial (after-eating) inflammatory response. Being sedentary before eating has been identified as an independent risk factor for cardiovascular, metabolic, and other noncommunicable disorders (Klop et al 2012).
Clearly it is not practical for most of us to go to the extremes of this trip, but less exposure to technology, bedrooms with least artificial light and earlier bedtimes, moving around before eating and mindfulness to lessen a racing mind are all simple lifestyle factors that we can adopt within ‘normal’ life. We can then extend this getting out into nature more and mimicking our hunter-gatherer ancestors’ habits, with ways to meet eu-stressors outdoors to support our immune and metabolic health:
- Being hardy – getting used to the cold and allowing our thermogenic (heat-creation) capacity to raise metabolism, as well as a few scratches and scrapes for immune modulation
- Navigate uneven terrain – getting off the pavement and onto ground we need to continually focus on is a naturally mindful activity that fully holds our attention in the present moment
- Exploring – the unpredictability and ever-changing natural world can tap into our primal
Replicating natural eu-stressors indoors:
- The self-massage of floor work in yoga, Feldenkrais and Pilates brings attention to the periphery and redirects the immune system back out to the skin, our first barrier defence.
- Dry brushing – to replicate surface contact with natural elements, use as hard a bristled brush (you can buy at good health food shops or online) and brush all over the skin in broad strokes towards the heart to encourage lymphatic flow to support immunity, avoid any sore areas.
- Turning the shower to cold at the end – another thermogenic activator that also sends circulation to the periphery.
Exercise and meditate outside
For many city dwellers and workers, green spaces such as parks are the only contact they may have with the natural world. This emphasises the need to take breaks, relieve stress with walks to these places before eating and get out of the town as often as possible. If this means even just a little greenery in your garden, exercising outdoors rather than inside can add to its beneficial effects.
Loosening standing movements from the Chinese energy movement systems T’ai Chi and Qi Gong are very often practiced within natural settings, as the Taoist tradition they originate from teaches that we need to approach nature as a thing to be mastered, but as a partner in a relationship. This is a simple sequence that can be done in your garden or a park whatever the weather:
- Standing with soft knees, allow arms to rise out and up naturally with the buoyancy of the inhale, drop with the release of the exhale; a simple meditation for connecting to the breath.
- In stillness, hold hands in front of your belly, fingers slightly apart, completing the circle of the pelvis. In this meditative space, we connect with the belly, and a deeper intuition of ‘what is here right now’. You can come back to this reflection between each movement.
- Circling the hips: rotating the pelvis, while the head stays central and knees soft allows us to awaken the channels up through the inner legs into the groin and belly. Spend a while here and then change the rotation to feel the difference in the tide.
- Swinging the arms: allow the arms to swing around the midline of the body, feeling the movement come from the belly; hands like weights at the ends of arms as ropes. Twist through the tissues of the torso, knees lightly soft so that we are not pulling through them and still feeling roots down to the feet.
- Circling a ball: hold an imaginary football at about eye height or higher, as your neck feels comfortable and with arms held in a circle to keep the soft ventral space of the inner arms. Keeping your focus on the ball, rotate it – from the belly – fully in front of your body, bending your knees as you reach it right down past your inner legs.
- Reaching twist: from holding the imaginary football in front of your chest, inhale to reach one hand back behind you, following it with your gaze to turn from the belly. Exhale to bring it back to join the other hand, then inhaling that back. Move from side-to-side, bending the knees as the hand moves past the body and retaining focus on the moving hand.
- A standing meditation from here connects us to the ground under our feet, the feelings of wind and air, and ever-changing sounds around; evoking connection to something beyond distractions of our lives and technology.
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