The Role of Nature in Boosting Mental Health

By Nina Campbell, MSN, BSN, RN, Stroke and Sepsis Coordinator, Mount Nittany Health

Everyone knows that hiking is good for your physical health, but did you know that getting outdoors has been proven to be good for your mental health too?


Several studies have shown that our environment can increase or reduce stress levels. Time spent outdoors alleviates stress and anxiety, increases positivity, and improves mental health in several important ways. Spending time in nature can improve your sleep, your memory, and even help you fight off illness.


Getting outside often means time in the sunshine. Vitamin D is produced by your skin by using the ultraviolet b energy from sunlight to convert cholesterol into the natural occurring version of vitamin D. Low vitamin D levels are linked to health conditions such as depression, muscle weakness, and osteoporosis. It’s important to ensure you are getting 10-30 minutes of sunlight everyday to maintain healthy levels.


Being exposed to sunlight is also linked to lower blood pressure. People who spend more time in nature have lower blood pressure, lower cortisol levels, and a lower pulse than individuals who spend more time indoors. Spending time in nature alleviates feelings of time pressure and stress. Time spent in green spaces is time away from the everyday stressors and a chance to unplug and relax in a truly therapeutic way.


Walking among trees has several health benefits that can produce positive health benefits that make it easier to keep a healthy and positive outlook on life. Several studies have linked nature walks to a reduced risk of depression.


Interactions with nature have shown to improve memory, cognitive performance, and attention control. Several studies have shown that a walk in the woods has memory promoting effects that are not replicated by comparable walks in an urban setting. Studies have also linked attention restoration to stress reduction. Being in nature allows the brain to take a break from the business of life.


Simply listening to the sounds of the natural world has proven to reduce your heart rate and blood pressure. The sounds of nature, from a babbling brook to the leaves rustling in the wind, have a calming effect on both your body and mind. These effects can be replicated just by listening to a recording.


Finally, time spent in nature can help keep you from getting sick. Trees emit phytoncides, which are powerful immune boosters. Immune boosting white blood cells are produced from breathing in phytoncides. These white blood cells play a major role in fighting tumors and viruses.


Spending time outside can also improve the quality of your sleep and can help realign your body’s clock to align to natural light and dark cycles and to a more natural circadian rhythm.


One study found that melatonin, a natural sleep hormone, increased at sunset when people spent more time outdoors. Melatonin regulates your sleep, and is normally produced by your brain in darkness. It normally stops being produced when your eyes absorb sunlight. This means spending time in the darkness may help you fall asleep and soaking up sunlight can make you feel more awake.


An insufficient amount of quality sleep can even result in mental and physical health problems, including obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular problems, depression, and diabetes. If you are suffering from poor sleep, Mount Nittany Health’s sleep lab is open seven nights a week for diagnostic testing to find the cause of and determine appropriate treatment for sleep disorders that impact daily life.


Getting outside is good for your health in a variety of ways - from improving your heart health, to reducing stress, and even alleviating the precursors to depression. Hiking can also help reduce your risk for stroke and other serious medical complications when combined with good nutrition and preventative health measures.