Updated: May 12, 2020
Taking a walk in nature, or by the ocean may have immune benefits beyond filling your lungs with fresh air! We’ve all experienced it; that sense of rejuvenation and awakening that comes with taking a walk outside. Turns out, it’s more than the lack of pollution, invigorating breeze, or the pleasant aroma of spring blossoms. According researcher Michael Moore, some of the phytochemicals from plants are airborne and when we inhale them, they inhibit some of the cytokines associated with an overblown immune response. Specially, he says
“The “biogenics'' hypothesis formulated here is that regular intermittent exposure to a mixture of airborne biogenic compounds in natural environments confers pleiotropic health benefits by inhibiting activities of the highly interconnected PI3K/Akt/mTORC1 system.”
In English,that means low, regular doses of nature and the phytochemicals released from trees and plants can help keep our immune systems in balance.
Even in this time of increased caution, we can get outside. A mask is required only if you are at risk of being within 6 feet of a non household member. If you can, go somewhere where you can walk without a mask on. But if that isn't possible, go with your mask on. Get your feet in some sand and some sun on your face. Strengthen your legs with a hike on one of our open, beautiful trails.
Further, time in nature is a powerful way to reduce stress. As most of you know, stress and the cortisol it produces, are inhibitors of the immune system. In an elegant experiment conducted by a colleague of mine, he quantified that exposure to nature, even as minimal as an outdoor mall, resets our cortisol levels within minutes. This is what he did: he exposed healthy, consenting volunteers to known stressors such as math tests and public speaking and measured their cortisol levels before and after. Then he randomized them to “recovery options” – watching traffic, or a leafy pedestrian mall, or opening the back door of his lab and letting them go outside. The people exposed to nature recovered from the stressor very quickly – within 5-7 minutes!
I think it’s safe to say everyone is feeling some extra stress these days, so do yourself a two-fold favor. Get outside! Stroll past the gardens in your neighborhood or along an open wooded trail and inhale those phytochemicals Sit on your balcony or in your yard. Breath the fresh air (of course, from a healthy distance from others) and enjoy the moment, and know that you are taking care of your immune system and lowering cortisol.