We all know we need nutritious food, adequate exercise, clean air and secure shelter to thrive. But did you know our bodies also long for the natural world in very real, concrete ways? By understanding these needs, we can provide the deep satisfaction of communing with Mother Nature in our own homes—where a connection with nature can improve our overall health.
It helps to understand where we came from. Our bodies are essentially the same model our Stone Age ancestors walked around in, although our living environments have changed dramatically since then. Some of those changes feel good—like being warm in winter, cool in summer, dry in the rain and safe from predators. But we’re also missing a lot.
Our Paleolithic ancestors were adapted to daily sun cycles, monthly moon cycles and annual seasonal cycles. They lived with waving fields of grass, scattered trees, flowing water, clean air, the call of birds, breezes, bare feet on earth and gathering around the fire at day’s end.
Today’s homes and cities are monotonous and overstimulating by comparison—and we’re usually unaware of how much that affects us. But growing numbers of studies show that tweaking basic elements of our surroundings can restore our vital relationship with the living world, making us happier, healthier and more productive.
Many of our bodies’ functions—including regulation of the hormones that control our sleep patterns and weight—are directly affected by sunlight. Electric lighting doesn’t contain all the wavelengths sunshine provides that our bodies need, and it can obliterate our connection with the sun’s daily and seasonal cycles.
Many studies have confirmed the physical importance of exposure to sunlight. Getting prudent, regular sunshine can improve heart health, blood pressure, muscle strength, immune function and cholesterol levels. Sunlight also increases production of melatonin, which helps us sleep, and serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter. Daily sunshine on just our face and hands can alleviate winter depression. And allowing the sun to light the indoors has been found to improve well-being and enhance school and workplace performance.
Tip: Get outside for at least 15 minutes a day—more in comfortable weather. Indoors, try to rely on sunlight rather than electric lighting during the day. Consider moving furniture closer to windows, making sure your most well-lit rooms are those you use most frequently and, if the rooms in your home are overly dark, installing skylights to bring in additional light.
2. Dark nights
Our ancient bodies were cued to go to sleep by the darkness of night. Today, the haze of streetlights, porch lights, traffic lights and flickering electric signs interferes with that cue—and our sleep. In your bedroom at night, with all the lights turned out, can you see your hand? If so, there’s enough stray light to disrupt your melatonin production and therefore your sleep cycle, which can cause health effects similar to jet lag.
Or maybe you’re in the habit of texting or checking email before bed: The blue light of electronic screens mimics sunlight and can throw off our bodies’ natural rhythms, causing insomnia. Experts recommend those with sleeping issues use only warm, red-based light in the two hours before bedtime to prevent blue light from disturbing circadian rhythms.
Tip: Turn off night lights and other light sources in and around your bedroom. If streetlights shine into your bedroom, consider installing light-blocking shades. Avoid bright lights and LCD screens for an hour or two before bedtime.
As children, many of us were taught that we should avoid dirt for good health. But actually, our deep and symbiotic connection with other living things extends to the microscopic soil life we evolved with for centuries. Certain bacteria that grow in healthy soil (specifically Mycobacterium vaccae and Lactobacillus bulgaricus) can positively affect our immune systems, mental function and mood by increasing levels of serotonin and norepinephrine. In one study, mice given M. vaccae navigated a maze twice as fast as a control group—while exhibiting less anxiety.
Tip: Through skin contact or inhalation, you may take in these beneficial bacteria in the wild or in your own backyard (if the soil hasn’t been poisoned by chemical pesticides and insecticides). So get your family outdoors, garden, or go hiking or camping—and breathe deeply!
Nothing tells our subconscious mind “life flourishes here” better than lush, green plants. In fact, an entire field of psychology called plant therapy studies the ways caring for plants gives people a sense of meaning and delight. Studies in hospitals have found patients who see greenery recover more quickly; a single plant in a windowless office has been found to lower blood pressure and make workers more efficient and accurate; and in urban settings, neighborhood greenery has helped foster social connections.
Tip: Look for places around your home and office where you can see or add green plants. Consider your views to the outdoors; can you see greenery from your desk or your favorite chair? If not, how about moving the chair, adding some landscaping or installing a window-box planter? Also decorate with houseplants in your home and office.
5. Sensory nourishment
All of our senses thrive on gentle, meaningful change and rich textures. Monotony dulls them. For example, our eyes work best when lighting levels are varied in a room, there’s a variety of scales and colors to explore visually, and we can shift between near and far focus from time to time.
Our hearing is best adapted to relatively quiet, varying background sounds—a stream, wind in the trees, birdsong—with occasional louder sounds that convey important information (avalanche!). Meaningless loud noises (traffic, construction) and monotonous sounds (the heating system, buzzing lights) can sap energy.
Our olfactory nerve (the sense of smell) gives us information about new scents, but goes to sleep when our smell environment is unchanging (so trust that first whiff when you enter a space!).
Tip: Tune in to all of your senses in the places where you spend the most time. What could you do to add visual, auditory or scent variety—and how might you minimize monotonous or unpleasant sensory inputs?
Of course drinking water is necessary for our survival and health, but soaking in it or simply gazing at it is good for us, too. A view of clean, moving water sends a strong “I can thrive here” message to our Paleolithic souls.
Studies show that soaking in warm water can balance the nervous system and reduce stress. In one study, patients with anxiety disorders felt less tension and nervousness after just 15 minutes of immersing in warm water. Got insomnia? A warm footbath can reduce stress and help ease your way into sleep.
Tip: To add water to your viewscape, install a pond, fountain or a large dish of water in your yard or deck (birds and other wildlife will thank you, too). Indoors, a tabletop fountain or other indoor water feature can satisfy our primal need to see water.
7. Other animals
In evolutionary terms, we are not accustomed to living in human-only environments. We instinctually prefer living in places where we’re surrounded by other life. This is why pet therapy is often so effective for shut-ins and children with behavior problems. It’s also why property values are higher in areas with diverse bird life, according to a 2011 study published in the journal Urban Ecosystems. Gazing at fish swimming in a tank can reduce blood pressure and anxiety, and just looking at photos of baby animals can improve concentration and productivity at work.
Tip: Spend time with pets; set up a bird feeder and birdbath in your yard; plant a backyard wildlife habitat garden (learn more at motherearthliving.com/wildlife-habitat); get out to a local park more often and enjoy the squirrels and birds—or just gaze at photos of cute animal babies online.
8. A sense of safety
We have an inborn desire to feel both protected and able to see what’s coming, preferring places that provide what environmental psychologists call “prospect and refuge.” This means we like to have a solid wall behind us and an open vista before us; in primitive terms, we want to see dinner, not be dinner. This is why gunslingers in the Old West avoided sitting with their back to the bar room door, and why feng shui practitioners recommend having your chair in the “command position,” where you can easily see who’s entering the room.
Tip: Look around your home and workplace to see if you can increase your sense of protection by moving furniture to put something solid at your back while having a clear view before you.
While each of these factors is important individually, our bodies crave the whole symphony of these eight environmental “nutrients” in constantly changing dynamic synergy—just like Mother Nature brings them to us in wilder surroundings. Sunlight, darkness, plants, soil, water and critters all play together in the grand dance
Restoring our relationship with the living world isn’t just a good health prescription; it can also be good for the whole earth. Living in harmony with natural cycles of light and dark saves energy. Providing wildlife habitat improves local biodiversity and helps reweave the web of life. Feeling our oneness with living systems deepens our desire to take care of them.
When we give our bodies what they crave from our surroundings, necessity and delight come together for the good of all.
Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection by Stephen R. Kellert
Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science and Practice of Buildings to Life by Stephen R. Kellert, Judith H. Heerwagen and Martin L. Mador
Your Brain on Nature: The Science of Nature’s Influence on Your Health, Happiness and Vitality by Eva M. Selhub and Alan C. Logan
Carol Venolia is a northern California eco-architect, co-author of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House, and founder of Come Home to Nature, a blog about reconnecting with the natural world in our home environments (comehometonature.com/blog).