The Abundant Benefits of Nature
Creative and Styling Director, Yann Weber. Photographer, Jenny Brough. Producer, Guillaume Folliero de Luna. Models, Sophia Roberts and Jordan Gou.
Nature is good for us, and science holds the proof. Studies on holistic and homeopathic treatments have developed considerably over the years. From "forest bathing" and "Earthing" to aromatherapy, take a look at the many benefits offered to us by Mother Earth.
Do we need nature to be happy and healthy? It is an intuition that we've all shared — during a hike in the mountains, a walk in the forest or along the seaside. These moments of communion with nature — and with oneself — are so many moments of privileged contact with our planet. The sensation of water or sand over your bare feet, the softness of the first rays of spring sunshine, the music of birdsong, the scents of flowers or conifers immediately envelop us in a state of well-being. But how does science explain the way nature makes us feel? What are the physiological mechanisms behind these benefits?
Our sense of belonging in the living world and the regenerative aspect of our contact with nature would appear to be inscribed deep within us. Biologist Edward O. Wilson even goes so far as to propose the term "biophilia": an innate need that can be explained by the intrinsic affinity that humans feel towards their natural environment; an affinity that pushes them to constantly seek connection with it. If it feels intuitive to assert that human beings are better off immersed in nature rather than in a polluted urban center, it remained to be confirmed by scientific studies. This has now been done. All the more reason to go green without delay!
Nature, an inexhaustible source of healing energy
In recent years, a growing number of researchers have begun to explore nature's impact on our health. Today, approximately 350 to 400 studies drawing from 25 years of research elaborate on the ways in which nature improves our physical and mental state. One of these studies revealed that hospitalized patients with a room overlooking a park recovered much more quickly than those who did not. Since then, various studies have shown the benefits of this seemingly minor detail: reduced respiratory problems, lower blood pressure and cortisol (a stress hormone), and improved immunity. To name the benefits of contact with nature, scientists have invented a new moniker: vitamin G (G for "green"). It refers to the essential role played by the flora and fauna that surround us and the benefits they provide.
Nature's anti-depressant effects have also been widely studied, notably at Stanford University in the United States. A team of researchers demonstrated how strolls in nature act upon our brains, concluding that they make us more positive and less prone to rumination — an important risk factor for depression — and help preserve our mental health. The results can be seen from the very first 90-minute walk. "Contact with nature works on emotional regulation and helps us feel better in general," says Gregory Bratman, the study's lead author. "Although not yet proven, these results point to a causal link between the increase in urbanization and the rate of mental illness," says James Gross, who also worked on the study. Nature may thus be one of the best bulwarks against gloom.
The sun also has a strong influence on our morale, that is when we get enough of it. It's a natural antidepressant that increases the production of serotonin, a chemical secreted by the brain and involved in the regulation of appetite, sleep, and mood. Sunlight is also crucial to our organism's vitamin D production, which is essential to bone density and also plays a role in cell metabolism, muscle function, and the immune response. Furthermore,Vitamin D deficiency — which is becoming increasingly common — is often related to insufficient sun exposure. For most people, just 15 to 20 minutes of sun a day is enough for the body to satisfy this need.
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Let's go for a stroll in the woods
Taking a break from the hustle and bustle of urban life is the idea behind the sensory and emotional experience called "forest bathing", a practice of immersion in nature that's grown increasingly common in the West. But what exactly is it? Silvotherapy is a medical practice long popular in Japan, where it's known as Shinrin-Yoku. Shinrin-Yoku spread around the world after a 2017 Chiba University study was released on the practice's physiological and psychological benefits. Decreased levels of stress hormones (including cortisol and adrenaline), improved blood pressure regulation, increased energy and vitality, better concentration, a reduction in hyperactivity...the effectiveness of silvotherapy has since been demonstrated by several scientific studies. Dr. Qing Li, a pioneer in the field, is the discipline's best-known representative. An immunologist at the Department of Hygiene and Public Health at Tokyo Medical University, he has been conducting research on the subject since 2005.
So, what are the scientific foundations upon which silvotherapy is based? Researchers believe that molecules called phytoncides, substances released by trees to defend against the bacteria and fungi that attack them, are actually able to penetrate our cells, too — thus strengthening our own protective mechanisms. Phytoncides are believed to reduce stress and cardiac problems, improve sleep quality, and strengthen the immune system. Samantha Dayawansa, from the University of Toyama in Japan has for example shown that inhaling cedrol (from the cedar family) reduces heart rate. During warmer seasons, when trees are most at-risk of attack by bacteria and insects, the concentration of these substances is even greater. "Soon, doctors will be handing out nature prescriptions," says Dr. Qing Li. Just two days of walks in the forest can create beneficial effects that remain visible for up to a month. Trees truly are powerful allies for our health.
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Back to Earth
Taking time out in nature is all well and good, but walking barefoot on wet dirt, sand, or grass is even better! At least that's what practitioners of Earthing (also called "grounding"), a practice of many virtues, say. Improved blood and lymphatic circulation, reduced inflammation and chronic pain, reduced stress, increased energy and, in the long term, better sleep — the list of benefits seems never-ending. But what are these claims based upon? In fact, walking barefoot derives its benefit from a kind of natural foot reflexology. Practiced in China for more than five thousand years, reflexotherapy holds that each organ, function, gland, or part of the human body projects itself onto a precise point on the foot. These points are called "reflex zones" and can be stimulated by massage or pressure in order to heal the corresponding area of the upper body, while acting upon the psyche as well. This reflex stimulation improves the circulation of vital energies, promoting the release of endorphins (essential to mood and pain relief) and activating the body's self-healing mechanisms.
When scents heal
An immersive experience in nature involves all five of our senses, starting with our sense of smell. It has been demonstrated that aromas have astonishing effects of great interest to researchers. Aromachology is the name of the scientific domain concerning scents and their influence on behavior and the mind. The sense of smell is the only sense directly linked to the limbic system, one of the oldest parts of the brain, and considered to be the home of emotions and memory. A recent discipline known as olfactotherapy, developed by energy therapists and somatologists, uses the inhalation of certain essential oils to calm, liberate, and regulate our emotional states —from fear and stress, to lack of confidence, anger, or difficulty concentrating, and more. Essential oils function as messengers that allow information to be made more efficiently delivered to the limbic system. They contain the essence of the plant and are made up of various biochemical elements that in turn determine their therapeutic properties. Grapefruit against sugar cravings, lavender for serenity, lemon verbena to relieve tension, lemon for stimulation, the applications are as numerous as they are fragrant.
Essential oils, therapeutic treasures
Aromatherapy, on the other hand, can be defined as the art of healing using essential oils, or as the medical use of aromatic plant extracts. Aromatic plants have been used throughout the world for thousands of years. Incense, for example, is one of the oldest perfumes used by humans. The first traces of its use date back to the fourth millennium BCE. In recent decades, the medical use of aromatic oils has aroused growing interest among health professionals, and with good reason: essential oils are complex compounds in which one can find over 200 molecules. Antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, anxiolytic, anti-inflammatory, immunostimulant — essential oils are real therapeutic treasures. The pharmacological activity of their various molecular constituents has been widely demonstrated, and research in this field is constantly progressing. Integrating them into our daily lives — with precautions and after consulting your physician, of course — is yet another way to benefit from the healing virtues of nature.
Above and beyond its many positive effects upon our physical and mental health, nature also awakens our creativity. According to psychologists at the University of Kansas in the United States, going green for four days could have a real impact on our creativity — it's shown to increase our feeling of inspiration and creative abilities by up to 50%. The study was conducted with the participation of about thirty volunteers, invited, for the occasion, to go for a hike in one of the great American parks. The results were, naturally, highly positive.