4 Ways To Boost Your Immune System with Nature

Woman sitting in nature overlooking the ocean

 

Being outside in nature can be beneficial to your health. Many of us instinctively seek out forest or lakeside pathways when the grind of daily life feels overwhelming. Being out in the open air, breathing in the scents of nature, listening to the songs of birds brings a sense of calm, a moment of peace in a day’s chaos. Time spent in nature not only helps relax the mind, but also has positive impacts on our immune system health.

A Time to Relax

A moment of calm out in nature switches the body’s nervous system response from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest”. When we are stressed or feel unsafe, we go into “fight or flight” mode which helps keep us alive by preparing us to fight a potential threat or flee from it, resulting in the physiological effects of a racing heart, high blood sugar, and a rush of adrenaline. Our immune system takes a back seat as it is not necessary to our immediate survival. Conversely, when relaxed and safe we are in “rest and digest” mode, resulting in improved digestion and optimal immune system function. More time spent in “rest and digest” mode helps our body maintain a healthy immune system response. If you’re unable to get a walk out in nature, time spent simply seeing and hearing nature engages the “rest and digest” nervous system. Looking out a window at the trees while drinking a calming tea or listening to nature sounds on headphones balances the autonomic nervous system, improves attention and promotes healing. 

A Breath of Fresh Phytoncides

Phytoncides are volatile oils released by many plants. If you run your fingers through a patch of wildflowers and experience a resultant burst of scent, you have encountered phytoncides. The name may sound intimidating but phytoncides are beneficial to human health. The volatile chemicals are antimicrobial so when we breathe them, we breathe in their bacteria-fighting capabilities. Phytoncides also put us into a ‘rest and digest’ state to further boost immune function. 

A Walk in the Woods

Walking in forested areas or urban green spaces helps regulate your immune system by reducing levels of inflammatory cytokines. These are protein signals secreted by the immune system in response to an insult. Although necessary when we get sick, they can occur at hyper-elevated levels in the body contributing to unwanted cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and depression. Walking in nature helps reduce inflammatory cytokines to normal levels and increases the number of NK killer cells which help the body fight off viruses and cancer. Who knew that a nature walk could be so beneficial?

The Soil-Gut-Immune System Connection

If you need a reason to play in the dirt, then look no further. Regular exposure to healthy soils and its microbes can have the same impact on our gut microbiome as what we eat! This significantly affects our immune system because the gut microbiome plays a vital role in immunity.  
Our ancestors instinctively engaged in “geophagy” eating local soils to supplement nutrient poor diets and to stave off illnesses. Until recently, people were in contact with local soil through agriculture, animal husbandry and by eating unwashed plants. Industrialized agriculture and rise of cities have resulted in less exposure to soil microbes. Seemingly more hygienic, it is actually less healthy.  Studies show that children who grow up on farms or outdoor settings often have lower rates of autoimmune disease than their urban counterparts who grow up in hygienic spaces. The reason boils down to regular interaction with soil - gardening without gloves, playing in the dirt, or breathing in airborne soil particles in nature helps create a rich and diverse gut microbiome which creates a healthy functioning immune system. 

To boost the benefits of your immune health supplements, carve out some time to spend outside in nature! Breathe in the scents, tune into the birds chirping, and get down into the dirt.

 

AUTHOR BIO

Dr. Jenna Jorgensen is a naturopathic physician and founder of Northwest Life Medicine Clinic in Bellingham, Washington.  With an emphasis on healthy and sustainable lifestyle, she works with her patients to find and heal the underlying causes of their symptoms so they are able to live their life to the fullest. You can learn more about her at www.nwlifemedicine.com or follow her on Instagram at  @docjorgensen for insights and updates about sustainable health and wellness.