You’ve heard of the wondrous benefits of vitamins A, B complex, C, D, E and even K. But there is an informal contender colloquially known as “vitamin N.” N stands for “nature,” and there is indeed research about how vitamin N improves well-being, and promotes a peaceful and insightful balance. When “consumed,” vitamin N is restorative, rejuvenative and can set you on the path to true wholesome health and well-being. The term “Vitamin N” was coined by Richard Louv in the early 200s, and it focuses on living a nature-rich life.
When you think of the word nature – what comes to mind? For most it’s “healthy” “clean.” It can encompass robustness such as a boulder sitting stalwart in the Painted Desert, to the delicate and fragile unfurling of a flower stamen. It is in the sharing of a thought with another, or a smile from a dog who is happy to see you even though you just met. And on…and on. This is vitamin N.
According to Hobson Homestead, there are 20 health benefits obtained from being outside. Among them, it reduces blood pressure, mental fog, anxiety and depression, improves focus and concentration, as well as immune system function, boosts vitamin D levels and increases energy. Mental health benefits include increasing positivity, creativity and problem-solving skills, and encourages gratefulness, contentedness and minimalism.
Children and Nature
Anecdotally, one mother wrote about her experience with providing vitamin N to her four children. She began to take her children to hiking trails, woods, open fields, parks, lakes, creeks, grassy areas and even yards to mindfully explore, all times of year. (Digital devices are left at home).
She noticed significant well-being improvements, chiefly, that a break from digital devices provides balance. “They exhibit better behavior. “When my kids are outside, they have more space and freedom and less of a chance of me having to get onto them—because it’s much harder to destroy nature than to destroy our home,” she quipped.
Further, being outdoors to explore the variety of local ecosystems encourages and emboldens the concept of discovery and promotes creativity.
To accelerate the vitamin N experience in youngsters, nature preschools are growing in number. According to the Natural Start Alliance, “Nature preschools have all the same child development goals that more traditional schools have, but they also are committed to accomplishing those goals through experiences in and with nature, and have an added goal of helping children begin to develop care and concern for the natural world.”
The purpose of another study was to explore the potential for nature preschools to support the development of initiative, self-regulation, and attachment, factors which, according to the authors, “can offset or moderate the effects of stress and adversity and allow a child to thrive or even by transformed by adversity.”
Participants in this study included 78 children aged 3 to 5 who attended nature preschools and a baseline group of 14 from a non-nature preschool in the same geographic region. Results showed that children in the nature preschools demonstrated growth in initiative at school and at home; this is the ability to use independent thought and action to meet his or her needs.
One study of rural children showed that they conceptualize nature as “a whole community.” They are also knowledgeable about the health benefits of nature, and capitalize on this knowledge.
Of course, adults can reap the benefits of vitamin N as well. In her article for the Scientist, Jef Akst writes, “For decades, scientists and health-care professionals have recognized that exposure to green spaces, such as public parks or forests, is linked with lower risks of all sorts of ailments common in the developed world—including cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, and mental distress.”
In a survey of 20,000 UK adults in 2014/15 and 2015/16, researchers found that spending only 2 hours per week surrounded by nature engendered higher likelihood of reporting good health and higher well-being.
Nature in the City
If you reside in a bustling urban environment, nature still exists although you may have to search a bit more for it. Biodiversity is a synonymous, more scientific term for nature; it depicts the variety of life in a particular habitat or ecosystem. And, say researchers, biodiversity “underpins urban ecosystem functions that are essential for human health and well-being. Understanding how biodiversity relates to human health is a developing frontier for science, policy and practice” especially in more congested areas. In their review, the authors noted that health and well-being benefits are attained by both abundance and proximity of biodiversity in urban areas.
The influence of urban green infrastructure (ie, natural areas that provide habitat among other benefits) on the health and well-being on the residents is real. Even the elderly and lower income residents have been shown to be, say authors of one study, “disproportionately healthy if their neighborhoods contain accessible, good quality public green-space.”
A fun and joyful element in urban nature is the community garden. Not only does this enhance social health and foster the spirit of unity in shared work to achieve flora and vegetable bounty, it has numerous other well-being benefits. Greenleaf Communities is an organization that helps generate community gardens and it “believes that urban agriculture can be beneficial to the environment, and to the health and wellbeing of community members.”
Community gardens can support urban neighborhoods by increasing the availability of nutritious foods, which can have a favorable impact on obesity by reducing risk of obesity and obesity-related diseases via higher, sustained consumption of fresh produce. One paper also found that gardens (nature) in urban areas also improve mental health and promote relaxation.
More research linking biodiversity and human health is being undertaken. According to authors of a new review, “a better mechanistic understanding of the range of pathways through which biodiversity can influence human health is needed. These pathways relate to both psychological and social processes as well as biophysical processes.”
No matter where you are, nature is there. Incorporate mindfulness – use all your senses. What sounds do you hear? Try to isolate and appreciate each one. Look closely at the plants, the insects, the spontaneous arrangement of pebbles. Touch different leaves and tree barks and memorize the tactile sensations – and the great thing about this exercise is that when you see pictures of that tree bark, for example, you will be able to recall what it feels like. And lastly, inhale deep breaths and focus on the scents.
While immersing your senses in the natural environment – don’t think about anything, don’t count seconds. Just simply be. This is the best of Vitamin N!