Health and Nature: How Green Spaces Benefit Body and Mind, Boosting Immunity

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If you could do just one thing to enhance your physical and mental well-being, and fortify your immune system, what would it be?

Increasingly, studies affirm the significance of nature and green spaces for human health. Proximity to nature not only reduces stress but also enhances immunity.

However, today, over 80% of people live in urban areas. Yet, this underscores the importance of green spaces for health.

Natural Killer Cells

The lush greenery and the delightful sounds of birdsong are universally recognized for their soothing effects. Japan has a traditional practice called "forest bathing," and in the West, activities like tree-hugging have gained popularity.

Hugging a tree can elevate oxytocin levels in the body. Oxytocin, often termed the "love hormone," fosters a stronger connection, similar to the bond between a mother and her child. It is also released when individuals experience joy. Simultaneously, serotonin and dopamine hormones increase during tree-hugging, contributing to a sense of happiness.

Research indicates that spending time in forested green spaces can increase the number of "natural killer cells" in the immune system.

Natural killer cells are crucial innate immune cells that participate in anti-tumor responses, fight viral infections, and regulate the immune system.

The good news is that a few hours in green spaces seem to yield positive effects.

Professor Ming Kuo, an expert in the impact of urban landscapes on human health at the University of Illinois Chicago, highlighted how green spaces influence the immune system in an interview with Dr. Michael Mosley of the BBC.

Calmative Effect

Professor Kuo explains that, firstly, green spaces have a calming effect on the immune system. There's an inflammatory cytokine system in the human body, acting as an alert mechanism. When overly activated, it can trigger panic, resembling a response to a formidable enemy, leading to an excessive defense response or a cytokine storm that could even result in death.

Regulating this internal alert system is crucial to preventing unnecessary panic.

Strengthening Effect

Secondly, green spaces strengthen the body's antiviral capabilities. They adjust the immune system's combat readiness, preparing it for potential battles.

Professor Kuo states that spending just three days in nature can have a "significant and lasting" impact on the body's antiviral capabilities, improving both the quantity and activity of natural killer cells.

Various environments, whether parks, beaches, mountains, or forests, offer benefits. Direct contact with soil in nature introduces a bacterium called mycobacterium vaccae, altering serotonin levels and aiding in stress and inflammation reduction, beneficial for anxiety and depression.

Additionally, mountainous areas, forests, and flowing water release more negative air ions, while plants release phytoncides, enhancing the quantity and activity of natural killer cells, contributing to improved health and disease resistance.

Mental Health

According to Professor Kuo, areas with more greenery have lower proportions of individuals suffering from anxiety and depression. In the United States, regions with more green spaces have fewer COVID-19 cases.

Professor Kuo explains that green spaces can boost the number of natural killer cells in the body's immune system. One of the functions of natural killer cells is to combat viruses, including COVID-19. Furthermore, green spaces can reduce levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Lower inflammation levels decrease the likelihood of experiencing a cytokine storm when infected with COVID-19.

In essence, nature keeps you "farther away from death."

The 120-Minute Threshold

A joint experiment by the University of Edinburgh and the University of Exeter reveals that spending at least 120 minutes per week in close proximity to nature is a critical threshold for significant health benefits.

Volunteers were divided into two groups—those with less than two hours and those with over two hours of weekly nature exposure. Physiological aspects, including cortisol levels and heart rate variability, and mental health aspects, including stress and mood, were tested.

The most noteworthy and crucial result was that volunteers spending over 120 minutes per week in nature experienced at least a 30% decrease in perceived stress, a significant and noticeable effect. Those with less than 120 minutes showed no significant reduction in stress levels.

Dr. Mosley emphasizes that while further research is needed, this experiment marks the first confirmation of the link between nature exposure and improved mental health.

In conclusion, whether in parks, green spaces, forests, or coastal areas, proximity to green environments provides relaxation and stress relief. However, spending over two hours per week in nature is necessary for noticeable effects—just stroll, unwind, savor the fragrance of nature, listen to the babbling brooks, and enjoy the song of birds.

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