The Benefits Of Nature: Lifestyle Practices, Herbs, Oils, Mushrooms And Teas

Connect with the natural world both inside and out for a healthy body and mind.

The Benefits Of Nature: Lifestyle Practices, Herbs, Oils, Mushrooms And Teas photo

With our technological advances and fast-paced lives, modern living can sometimes leave us feeling frazzled, disconnected and separate from the natural world. However, humans have always been and still remain a part of nature. We have basic biological needs and requirements that can only be obtained from the natural world through nutritious food that is grown or raised on the land, natural sunlight that regulates our sleep patterns and provides vitamin D, and fresh air and green spaces for movement, rest and recuperation.

We experience primal, instinctive reactions such as the fight or flight stress response to real or perceived threats just like other animals, and science shows us that our nervous systems respond positively to being in natural, green environments. We have a gut consisting of its own miniature ecosystem of gut microbes that helps to keep us healthy, providing we take care of it by eating a variety of plant fibres to support its biodiversity. We are inherently connected to the natural world in multiple ways.

Approaches to wellness such as human re-wilding, plant medicine, forest therapy, nature-based mindfulness and forest schools have risen in popularity in recent years as people seek a deeper connection with the natural world and a return to simpler, more sustainable lifestyles.

If you feel like you have been neglecting that wilder part of yourself and you are looking to connect more deeply with nature for a healthier body and mind, this article offers some tips and ideas to help you get started.

Try these activities to re-wild yourself and connect with nature more deeply to give your health a boost:


Forest therapy

Also known as Shinrin-Yoku, forest therapy involves immersing yourself in the atmosphere of the forest and includes elements of mindfulness, such as focusing on the present moment, deep breathing and being aware of the sights, sounds and smells of your natural surroundings. The term was introduced in Japan in 1982 and there has since been a magnitude of scientific studies looking at the health-promoting benefits of spending time in forests, woodlands or other natural spaces, with particular emphasis on stress reduction for those living in urban environments.

A recent study found significant evidence for the positive effects of forest therapy on human health.1 Benefits included improved cardiovascular health, reduced blood pressure, improved immunity through increased activity of white blood cells called natural killer cells (NKC), reduced activity of the ‘fight or flight’ stress response and stimulation of the part of the nervous system responsible for relaxation, rest and digestion. Phytoncides are essential oils released by plants and trees into the forest atmosphere and it is thought that these oils are responsible for some of the positive health effects of forest bathing, particularly the benefits for immunity.1

You don’t have to live in a cabin deep in the forest to fully experience the benefits of forest therapy. Find a local nature reserve, park, woodland or forest to visit and enjoy a gentle walk. Whilst you’re walking, pay attention to your surroundings and your breath, notice the smells, sounds, sights, colours and how being in the natural elements feels. For a guided experience, look in your local area for forest-bathing walks led by a forest therapy guide.


Get some indoor plants

Introducing greenery in the form of indoor plants can help to improve your mood and emotional wellbeing, particularly if you spend a lot of time indoors. A recent review of 45 studies found that an indoor space with plants is associated with positive emotions such as friendliness, happiness, cheerfulness, relaxation and peacefulness and reduced negative emotions such as anxiety, pressure and fatigue, compared to indoor spaces without plants.2 Greater concentration and productivity was also found in people living in homes with indoor plants compared to those with no indoor plants.2

House plants don’t cost too much and are a great way to bring nature indoors to promote a feeling of calm!


Give gardening a try

Gardening is a pastime associated with a wide array of health benefits such as reduced depression and anxiety, weight management, increased life satisfaction and better quality of life.3 Learning to grow and care for plants can be an exciting and rewarding experience, and brings you into direct contact with nature, the seasons and the natural cycles of life, whilst also keeping physically active. Physical contact with natural materials such as soil and moss can improve the diversity of the skin microbiome, which helps to keep the skin healthy and reduce inflammation and redness.4 Who knew gardening could help your skin too!

To try your hand at gardening, you just need a small patch of land, either your own garden or you could apply for an allotment or help out at a community garden.


Learn to forage

Foraging is a great way to connect with your local landscape. Different plants grow at different times of the year so it can also be a fun way to follow nature where you live throughout the changing seasons. Edible foods that can be foraged include elderberries, sloe berries, blackberries, rosehips, hazelnuts, wild strawberries, nettle, wild garlic, dandelion and chamomile, to name just a few, which can be used in all manner of tasty dishes.

However, it’s important that you know what you’re picking and to never munch on a hunch as there may be toxic look-alike plants, and some plants require careful preparation before they are safe to consume. For safe foraging, consult a reliable plant identification book and follow these guidelines to look after yourself and your environment.

There may even be some expert-led foraging walks in your local area that you can join.

The power of plants: herbs, oils, mushrooms and teas for a healthy body and mind

Essential oils are created through the distillation or mechanical pressing of plant parts to create a highly aromatic, concentrated oil that has specific properties. Essential oils may be used in aromatherapy, in oil diffusers or oil burners to release a fragrance, added to a bath, or they can be included as ingredients in skincare products and massage oils.


Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is a complementary therapy that uses aromatic essential oils via inhalation or skin application to support physical and mental health.5 Specific aromas are chosen for their desired effect. For example, essential oils can be used to lift the mood, relieve stress, rejuvenate or improve concentration and memory. It is believed that essential oils exert this effect by stimulating olfactory nerve receptors in the nose connected to the brain, affecting areas of the brain such as the limbic system and hypothalamus, triggering the release of neurotransmitters – the brain’s messengers.5 Alternatively, diluted oils may exert their effect when applied to the skin via massage.5

Here are several essential oils and their potential benefits, backed by research:5,6

Lavender oil

  • Stress relief
  • Anti-anxiety
  • Remedy for burns
  • Supports sleep

Lemon/Citrus

  • Mood lifting
  • Nausea relief
  • May help with first stage labour pain
  • Antiseptic and astringent for oily skin

Tea Tree oil

  • Antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal
  • Immune stimulating

Rosemary oil

  • Memory enhancer
  • Improved cognition
  • Reduced cortisol (stress hormone)
  • Anti-anxiety
  • Improved mood

Whilst essential oils are usually seen as safe to use because they are natural, they should not be applied neatly to the skin or taken internally due to their strong concentration and ability to burn or cause damage to delicate tissues. Furthermore, it is advisable to seek the guidance of a qualified aromatherapist when working with essential oils for safety reasons. For example, some essential oils should not be used during pregnancy. Dilution of essential oils requires a carrier oil that can create a safe blend – water is not sufficient to dilute oils.

Herbal teas

Herbal teas are another great way to make use of nature’s bounty to boost your health. They offer a gentler way to experience the power of medicinal herbs, can help you to stay hydrated, are a source of antioxidants and can help to soothe the nervous system and digestion. Some popular herbal teas include chamomile, peppermint and ginger tea.

Chamomile tea is traditionally drunk to ease digestive complaints such as bloating and flatulence due to its antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties. It may also help with relaxation.7 Peppermint too can help with digestive issues, such as an upset stomach, and can also freshen the breath.8 Ginger is another tea that aids digestion and can help with nausea such as morning sickness and motion sickness.8 However, there are many different types of herbal teas available, sold as loose tea or in teabags. If you have a herb garden you can also make your own tea by steeping fresh leaves in hot water, for example, peppermint, lemon balm, mint and even rosemary are good options for digestive support and their anti-inflammatory properties.


Herbal medicine

Herbal medicine is a complementary therapy that makes use of medicinal plants, in the form of tinctures or standardised herbal extracts, to support health and to prevent disease. Herbal medicine may be used to support a whole host of issues such as skin health, liver detoxification, reproductive function, hormone balance, energy production, cardiovascular health and digestive function.

Many people consider herbal medicine to be safe since herbs are natural products, however medicinal herbs have chemical constituents that can be potent in their effects and may interact with other medications or be contraindicated during pregnancy. Therefore it is a good idea to seek the guidance of a qualified medical herbalist before trying out a herbal supplement and this should not replace medical advice.


Medicinal mushrooms

Mushrooms aren’t just pretty to look at in Autumn when walking in the woods. Dried mushroom powders, blends and mushroom extracts containing fungi such as Reishi, Chaga, Maitake and Shiitake varieties are available as dietary supplements and have increased in popularity over the years. Whilst more clinical research in humans is required, studies indicate that specific compounds in mushrooms may be able to enhance and regulate the immune system favourably and may have anti-cancer properties.9,10 Other studies support the potential for mushrooms to help lower cholesterol for cardiovascular health. Additionally, mushrooms are high in antioxidant compounds which may help to reduce inflammation and support cell health and function. 10

Summary

The benefits of nature on health are wide and varied. Connecting with nature through forest therapy, gardening, indoor plants and wild foraging can support emotional wellbeing, improve mood and reduce the risk of health problems such as depression and high blood pressure. Products derived from nature such as essential oils, herbal teas, herbal medicines and medicinal mushrooms have the potential to support mind and body through reducing stress and anxiety, improving digestion, regulating the immune system and nudging the body back into a state of balance.

Rajoo KS, Karam DS, Abdullah MZ. The physiological and psychosocial effects of forest therapy: A systematic review. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening. [internet] 2020 October. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1618866720304039

Han K, Ruan L. Effects of Indoor Plants on Self-Reported Perceptions: A Systemic Review. Sustainability. [internet] 2019 August. Available from: https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/11/16/4506/htm

Soga M, Gaston KJ, Yamaurac Y. Gardening is beneficial for health: A meta-analysis. Preventive Medicine Reports. [internet] 2017 March. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5153451/

Grönroos M,. et al. Short‐term direct contact with soil and plant materials leads to an immediate increase in diversity of skin microbiota. Microbiologyopen. [internet] 2018 May. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6436432/

Wabel A, et al. Essential oils used in aromatherapy: A systemic review. Asian Pac J Trop Biomed. 2015; 5(8): 601-611.

Rahbardar MG, Hosseinzadeh H. Therapeutic effects of rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis L.) and its active constituents on nervous system disorders. Iran J Basic Med Sci. 2020; 23(9): 1100–1112.

Srivastava J, Shankar E, Gupta S. Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future. Mol Med Report. 2010; 3(6): 895-901.

Ravikumar C. Review On Herbal Teas. J. Pharm. Sci. & Res. 2014; 6(5): 236-238

Frost M. Three Popular Medicinal Mushroom Supplements: A Review of Human Clinical Trials. Faculty Publications. [internet] 2016 Jan. Available from: https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/facpub/1609/

Sadler M. Nutritional properties of edible fungi. Nutrition Bulletin. 2003; 28: 305-308.