Why nature is so important for mental health
You may have heard of a new condition, Nature Deficit Disorder, which is being used to describe the result of 90% of the UK population now living in urban areas. Both green and blue, colours which dominate in the natural world, have been scientifically proven to be of great benefit to our well-being.
Research has revealed that if every household in England had access to green space it would save the NHS a staggering £2.1bn annually (Gov. Office for Science 2015). Currently, only 14% of households currently have access to green space. A Dutch study showed a clear link between spending time in green spaces and reduced prescriptions for antidepressants. The benefits of natural blue spaces – lakes, rivers and coastal regions, are also backed by European research showing that people who live near green spaces and coastal regions have a lower risk of suicide.
We are nature
Clearly, taking the time to regularly connect with nature can do wonders for our health and happiness. In Japan, the ancient art of forest bathing (‘shinrin-yoku’) is being used in preventative health-care to keep people well. This traditional practice involves immersing yourself in nature by using your five senses mindfully.
Extensive studies have looked at how forest bathing supports the immune system, the cardiovascular system, the respiratory system, depression/anxiety, mental relaxation and finally, increased feelings of gratitude and selflessness. All this from a mindful walk in the woods!
Ayurveda, ancient wisdom that has passed down for centuries in India, views that we are all interconnected- just as we are a part of nature, it is part of us. Our well-being and the health of our ecosystem are intimately linked which helps explain why spending time outdoors can make us feel so good.
Connecting to our roots
According to scientists, we see green better than any colour. Before our urban landscapes sprung up, our ancestors resided in green forested regions. As they searched for food the ability to spot coloured berries against a background of green leaves would have been key for survival.
In Ayurveda, the colour green brings balance to each of the dosha mind-body types (vata, pitta and kapha). Blue is seen as a cool colour to calm and relax, like a long exhalation.
Connectedness through the seasons
Spring is a time of growth and life, with increased warmth and moisture from the thawing of winter. After the cold and wet qualities of winter, as well as heavier diets, our body is naturally more congested and damp at this time. The increased heat of spring melts the congested damp that has accumulated, causing the onset of spring colds and characterised by high levels of mucus.
If you are a regular sufferer of hay fever or are currently battling a stubborn head cold, then a bit of a ‘spring clean’ might be just what you need to clear the accumulation. Now is the time to support your body’s natural efforts to find balance by supporting practices to clear the excess congestion.
Now is a time to wake with the dawn and make the most of seasonal vitality. Why not head outdoors and gather green, bitter plants that nature provides in abundance at this time of year-think nettles, sorrel, dandelions and wild garlic which can be made to taste delicious with a little imagination- think pesto, soup, salads and teas.
A brisk foraging walk is also an ideal way to help your body and mind adjust to its new spring environment. Ensure that you receive adequate periods of rest and sleep, take regular appropriate exercise, have a good nutritious diet and a positive state of mind. By working towards this, you will start to recharge your body and really feel that ‘spring’ return to your step.
Read our Ayurvedic Spring Guide
In summer, the fire element of Ayurveda is higher with more warmth, dryness and lightness. The increase in environmental heat can influence the onset of inflammatory symptoms such as hay-fever, prickly heat and summer fevers. Similarly, our emotions can also become naturally more ‘heated’ and we may experience a tendency to become ‘hot under the collar’.
The Ayurvedic approach to summer health is centred on the need to both calm and reduce heat. For a blissful start to your day, try walking with bare feet on a green, dewy lawn. However, there has never been a better time to get further afield too and immerse yourself in the healing powers of nature.
With long summer evenings stretching ahead, the UK is blessed with over 7,000 miles of stunning coast-line alongside 3 million hectares of woods to explore. To really feel cool and calm, nothing beats a wild swim in a river, lake or the sea. In less than a decade, the number of outdoor swimmers (who regularly dive into lidos, lakes, rivers and the sea) has exploded from a handful to tens of thousands. This trend looks set to continue.
Why not seek out your nearest woodland or wild swimming spot and experience the healing powers of being outside in nature this summer for yourself?
Read our Ayurvedic Summer Guide
During autumn, the air element is predominant with more light, dry and cool weather alongside the erratic winds of change. As the vata constitution is regulated by the air element, this is the dosha that requires the most attention during the autumnal change.
The stark change in weather and cooler, drier environment can cause levels of moisture in the body to reduce and also affect how well we digest our food. Similarly, the winds of change can make us feel more on edge or erratic, and often our nervous system can become aggravated, making us feel anxious.
As with spring, the most important point is to allow your body and mind time to adjust to its new environment - give it time and support it to feel ready and stocked up for winter. Make sure you make the most of warm, sunny spells to enjoy being outside and going for walks. But wrap up warm and come home to a nourishing drink with some warming spices, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom and are all ideal.
Read our Ayurvedic Autumn Guide
During winter, the earth’s energy is drawn back into herself: It’s a time of rest, storing and preparation. This is the time of year where you need to be more grounded, internalised and still. The weather can be cold, wet, cloudy and is dominated by the earth and water elements. Sleeping in until a bit later can actually be beneficial during the winter, as staying warm in your bed helps you to rejuvenate (good news for kapha types who love a lie in!).
But the short dark days can be depressing so make sure you keep sociable too. Why not arrange a group walk to a new area, followed by a pub lunch around a roaring fire? Don’t forget to wear a hat as 60% of heat is lost through the head! Come home to a hot bath and a good book.
Ayurveda suggests that an occasional glass of warming wine may be beneficial in the winter to encourage circulation and stimulate digestion.
Read our Ayurvedic Winter Guide
Author: Dr Vivien Rolfe
Head of Herbal Research
Viv is a gut physiologist and has recently achieved a Foundation in Herbal Medicine. She leads Pukka’s research programme to explore how herbs can benefit our health and be used to widen healthcare choices. This includes research into herbs for Women’s health and as alternatives to antibiotics. She establishes global research partnerships and enthuses the next generation of scientists through Pukka’s Scholarship Scheme. She is a champion of diversity in science and open access to knowledge.
BSc, PhD, PFHEA
Years of experience:
30+ years in the wellbeing industry and academia
Degree in Physiology University of Sheffield, PhD University of Sheffield, Foundation in Herbalism Heartwood, MBA Entrepreneurship (on-going) Edinburgh Napier University, Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
Membership of Nutrition Society, Physiological Society, Society for Chemical Industry, and other herbal and botanical groups.