Nature-deficit disorder: 10 ways nature boosts health

Nature-deficit disorder

Humans have an innate and primal connection to nature. Our species has only developed the behaviour of inhabiting sterile rooms under the artificial blaze of fluorescent lighting over the past century, merely a blink in the thousands of years of our evolution. Despite the voluntary alienation from anything natural or ‘living’, humans are a part of nature. Is it not therefore unbelievable that nature would have a role in human mental health and wellbeing? With over half the world’s population living urbanised lifestyles, scientists have begun to associate growing rates of mental health issues with what has been termed, ‘nature-deficit disorder’.

Nature-deficit disorder

You won’t find ‘nature-deficit disorder’ in any medical journals. The term was coined by Richard Louv’s 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods” in which he argues that increasingly urbanised lifestyles are leading to a loss of connection with the natural world, particularly in children. Louv claims that this alienation from nature ultimately affects mental and physical well-being and contributes to (or pulls the trigger on) many mood and behaviour changes in both adults and young people. But now, the science has begun to support Louv’s claims with resounding evidence of the healing and revitalising effects of regular nature exposure.

A love of life

Do you ever notice that when you walk into a room, your eyes are sub-consciously drawn to the pot plant (no matter how sad it looks)? That you instinctively gaze at the green grass or gently swaying trees outside the window? That your breathing becomes deeper, and mind becomes clearer when you’re outdoors? There is a theory that humans have evolved to have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life known as the “biophilia hypothesis”. The term ‘biophilia’ comes from the Greek ‘bio’ meaning ‘life’ and ‘philia’ meaning ‘love of’. Love of life. Love of nature. The biophilia hypothesis has given way to a vast array of studies demonstrating that spending time in natural environments helps people to overcome the mental fatigue and stress associated with modern life.

Our walk in Mount Cook, New Zealand, September 2021

Nature-deficit disorder – a symptom of modern life

My childhood was spent completely outdoors. Even the torrential downpour and flooding of the Far North Queensland wet season didn’t keep my sister and I inside for long; the rain becoming the perfect backdrop for our newest game. This was the 90s, barely a generation ago where kids roamed free, coming home when they got hungry or the sun started to set, which ever came first. How much the world has changed in such a short time. From staring at trees and clouds, the underdeveloped eyes of children now bounce between TVs, laptops, smartphones and tablets. Lives once spent under the light of day are now lived by the gleam of electronics. It’s no wonder childhood diagnosis of attention difficulties, anxiety, obesity and behaviour disorders are so rapidly widespread. Experts are calling this the “epidemic of inactivity” and it doesn’t end at childhood.

The benefits of nature time

The future is not all doom and blue-light gloom. Rather than focusing on what is lost through nature-deficit disorder, recent studies have instead researched what is gained through more nature exposure, and the results are wonderfully heartening. A 2021 review into the associations between nature exposure and health found nature time has a protective effect on mental health and cognitive function. Spending time in nature can have the following positive effects:

  • Significantly reduces stress and cortisol levels
  • Improves mood and feelings of negativity
  • Increases vitamin D intake
  • Decreases anxiety and depression
  • Boosts cognitive function and focus
  • Lowers both systolic and diastolic blood pressure
  • Increases immune function (prevents illness!)
  • Improves sleep duration and quality
  • Protects against asthma and allergies by lowering inflammation
  • Promotes physical activity and healthy weight

How to combat nature-deficit disorder

If nature-deficit disorder is a symptom of modern life, then it’s our lifestyles that need attention. But before you sell everything to go live in a treehouse off-grid, research has shown that every little bit counts. Here are some ways you can bring a little more vitamin N into your life:

  1. Get out in the AM: Bright light first thing in the morning signals to your brain that it’s time to wake up and helps to regulate your circadian rhythm. Go for a walk, feel the sun on your face and breath deeply.
  2. Food with a view: Whether its breakfast under the kiss of morning rays or lunch on a park bench near work, eat your meals outside where you can and encourage others to join you.
  3. Take work outside: There’s nothing like a change of scenery. Try walking meetings or take phone calls outside to boost creativity and reduce stress. If you work from home, set your laptop on the balcony, on a park or on the beach.  
  4. Exercise outside: Don’t be that person who drives to the gym to walk on the treadmill! Walk outside, explore where you live and breath in some fresh air. Discover a new park or bush walk. Go for lunchtime walks – studies show that even a 20-minute stroll through a city garden can boost memory, cognition and feelings of wellbeing.
  5. Try forest bathing: No nudity required. Forest bathing emerged in Japan in the 1980s as a form of ecotherapy to assist burnout of city residents and to protect the country’s forests. This practice can be simply walking in any natural environment while consciously taking in the smells, sights and sounds. The aim here is conscious immersion. Sit on the ground, touch the trees and listen.
  6. Escape to the wilderness: Take nature inspired holidays. Rather than escaping the city for another city, go camping (or glamping). National parks and seaside escapes provide opportunity for the whole family to slow down and discover new flora and fauna in the area.
  7. Become a crazy plant lady: Plants bring so much more than just beauty. Beyond the lush foliage lies psychological and physical health benefits, especially if you live in the city. Bring nature inside to improve air quality, lower stress, fatigue and anxiety and improve mood. Give your plants a little love and they will show you love back.

More trees, less screens

With technological advancements being made each day to supplement daily life, human reliance on technology won’t be wavering anytime soon. Nature time is needed now more than ever to bring balance to increasingly indoor and sterile lifestyles. While nature-deficit disorder can’t be diagnosed, it’s symptoms such as anxiety and depression certainly can. It’s time to see the forest from the trees. Stop getting your dose vitamin N from watching David Attenborough. Get out there and experience the benefits of the natural world.

How do you bring a little nature into your life each day? How does it make you feel? Let me know in the comments or send me a message x

Elisabeth Hudson
Elisabeth Hudson

Hi, I’m Liz, the creator of The Vitality Folk. I’m a holistic health lover, food enthusiast and currently completing a Bachelor of Health Science. Thank you for being here on this journey to improve our health and vitality x

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