Ecotherapy: The Health Benefits of Nature
Nature’s Effects on a Woman’s Brain and Body
In 2017 neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology identified the brain circuit necessary for memory formation. This new finding challenges the previous model of memory formation occurring solely in the hippocampus (and then the memory moving from there). Memories are formed simultaneously in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. In the longterm storage location of the brain’s cortex the memories in the cells of the cortex are “silent” for two weeks before maturing (Kitamura et al. 2017).
Being in nature helps women’s brain systems with consolidation of memory. Researchers at the University of Michigan gave students a fleeting memory test and then divided the participants into two groups. One group took a walk around an arboretum and the other half took a walk down a city street. When the participants returned and repeated the test, those who had wandered among trees did nearly 20 percent better than they had on the first memory test. The students who had taken in city views did not consistently develop their short-term memory (Berman, Jonides, and Kaplan 2008). A related study on depressed individuals also found that walks in nature boosted working memory significantly compared to walks in urban surroundings (Berman et al. 2012). Physical activity in green environments can both prevent and treat depression as well as increase short-term memory.
A study published in 2010 in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease & Other Dementias shows that long-suffering dementia and Alzheimer’s patients are known to have decreased symptoms following time in nature (Jarrott & Gigliotti 2010). Landscape architects are designing therapeutic gardens and green environments for use in nursing homes, hospitals, and work-related spaces. These innovative spaces not only decrease symptoms in women suffering from neurological disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s, they also reduce the stress and anxiety of the caretakers in these facilities.
Many women today report feelings of un-centeredness and dizziness with reduced clarity, attention, and focus--what researchers call brain fog, or mental fatigue. A profound way to restore mental clarity and focus is being immersed in restorative green environments. One study found that women’s mental energy increased even when simply looking at pictures of nature.
The frontal lobe, the part of our brain that’s hyper-engaged in modern life, deactivates when outside. Alpha waves, which indicate a calm but alert state, grow stronger and connect to the energy that is found in nature. Meditation is also great at engaging alpha waves. Thus, pairing brain and body exercises such as meditation and running in nature is significantly beneficial. Transcendental Meditation has been heavily researched and shown to reduce crime, violence, and negative behavior in the general area where the meditation takes place. Likewise, proximity to nature corresponds to lower murder and crime rates, which should influence more green spaces to be prominent in city environments (Kuo & Sullivan 2001).
Mental illness and negative thoughts worsen without nature (Berman 2012). A group of researchers from Stanford University think the green effect might have something to do with reducing rumination, or as the researchers state, “a maladaptive pattern of self-referential thought that is associated with heightened risk for depression and other mental illnesses.” Rumination is what happens when women get remarkably sad and can’t stop thinking about negative beliefs, concepts, and situations in their life. Rumination is shown to be increased activity in a brain region called the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a narrow band in the lower part of the brain that regulates negative emotions. If rumination continues for too long unregulated, depression can develop. The Stanford researchers chose to study city dwellers, predicting they would have “a somewhat elevated level of rumination resulting from the ongoing and chronic stressors associated with the urban experience.” (Bratman, Hamilton, Hahn, Daily & Gross, 2015).
Women and men report significantly different reactions to stress. Women can find stress relief in all aspects of nature--the sight of the mountains, the feel of the grass, the smell of the air full of rich oxygen and electrons, the calming sounds of crickets chirping and water flowing. The entire experience brings about change in physical and mental health. It is not isolating bits of nature into city environments that has the most measurable effect in health and mental health (Journal of Environmental Psychology 1995 and 2005; Psychological Science 2012).
One study found that students who spent two nights in a forest had lower levels of cortisol, the hormone often used as a marker for stress, in contrast to those who spent the same period in urban or city surroundings. In another study researchers found a decrease in both heart rate and levels of cortisol in subjects in the forest when compared to those in the city. The researchers concluded that stressful states can be relieved by forest therapy (Scandinavian Journal of Forest Research 2007; Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine 2010; Japanese Journal of Hygiene 2011; Biomedical and Environmental Sciences 2012).
In the workplace, a recent study showed a reduction in employee stress when the employees spent time outside (Largo-Wight, Chen, Dodd, & Weiler 2011). The view of nature out a window is also associated with lower stress and higher job satisfaction. Even looking at nature photos and images on mobile devices has shown some benefit.
In another study women who spent time in the forest had lower levels of inflammation than those who spent time in urban environments. In a study published in the Journal of Cardiology elderly women sent on a week-long trip into the forest showed reduced signs of inflammation and a positive effect on their hypertension (Biomedical and Environmental Sciences 2012; Journal of Cardiology 2012). The health effects of green space are numerous and even studies that can’t prove causeand-effect still show strong associations between access to nature and longer, healthier lives for women.