Does nature really help our mental health?

Ah I love Springwatch.  The opportunity for me to just sit and watch the team sharing their joy, excitement and knowledge of nature with us over a three week period around this time every year.

Imagine my particular excitement this year when, in episode 5 on 2nd June, the team explored the power of nature to help our mental health.

I was even more pleased when Chris Packham stepped forward to explain how it is that nature has such a powerful, positive impact on us.  I’ve been trying to explain this for some time now and have struggled so I’m so grateful for the help.

As always, he was able to explain what happens in a straightforward way without over-simplifying or infantilizing us, making sure there is evidence to back it all up.

For the following I have borrowed much of Chris’ words to explain, although I do recommend you watch the recording if you can.

Brain chemicals

Our brain produces chemicals which we need to keep in balance to feel ok.

There are three key ones in relation to our mental health:

Serotonin: the good-feeling chemical that makes us feel positive and energetic

Dopamine: the “wow” chemical, when we experience something amazing or exciting

Cortisol: fight or flight or stress hormone; too much and things “go wrong” in our brain

A dose of nature

Time out in nature, whilst it may feel like magic, has a scientific basis for how it makes us feel better.  Various doses of nature help our brains re-gain or enhance its chemical balance.

There are four key things nature does for us:

The “wow” factor: when we see something beautiful or amazing, our brain produces dopamine

Trees produce phytoncides: we breathe them in and they enhance our immune system helping us fight tumours or viruses for example; they help our physical as well as mental health

Bacteria on the ground: help the production of serotonin

Sun: helps the production of serotonin

If you’d like to see Chris’ explanation, it starts at 40’ 40” for 5 minutes.

Skylarks nature reserve June 2020
Skylarks nature reserve, June 2020