The Actual Scientific Reasons Why Getting Outdoors is Good for Sleep and Wellbeing
Early this week, I was able to truly appreciate the plethora of health benefits and free therapy you can get from a single day out in nature. On Tuesday morning, my friend Lee and I woke up with our best efforts not to seem sleep deprived at 5:30am for a long drive to Wilsons Prom (under 3 hours away from Melbourne) for what should have been a 15km walk. The best part is, that we didn’t feel like sleepy zombies as the day went on, and this is only one of the amazing benefits of getting outdoors! Let me explain...
SO WHY BETTER SLEEP?
It makes sense intuitively that being outside will allow for you to sleep better, I mean we’ve all been camping and have had restful nights of shut-eye. But what is the scientific reason for it? When we’re exposed to natural light, I like to see it as there are 2 “mechanisms” that occur in our systems, biologically.
- 1) Firstly, our bodies recognises the change in illumination between sunlight during the day and darkness in the evening. This signals to our body to produce melatonin (commonly known as the sleep hormone). This mechanism runs on the basis that darkness triggers melatonin production.
- 2) Secondly, being exposed to the bright sun during the day (especially midday) also increases melatonin levels at night. Why is this such a big factor? Well, let me bring this to you in a real example that personally blew my mind. When we’re sitting on our phone with the tv on in the background in a brightly lit room, the level of brightness (in lux, aka a unit of illuminance) is around 100. If we compare this to being outside on a walk or hike on an overcast day (with clouds!!) the brightness is 10,000 lux! This huge contrast makes sense when you’re squinting to read a text from your mum on a bright summer’s day and your phone is on its highest brightness, yet you still struggle to even find the message app. So yes, daylight makes a dramatic difference as it hits our eyes and skin.
So to answer my conundrum at the beginning of this post, Q: why were Lee and I still bright eyed come 2pm even after 5-6 hours sleep? A: When the surrounding outdoor environment transforms from dark to light in the morning, which we witnessed as we had hit the road by 6, your brain wakes up regardless of whether you have had a proper nights sleep or not! So here’s a tip, if you’re a sleepy head in the morning, you can get a boost by exposing yourself to direct sunlight to kick the drowsiness.
YOUR BODY DRINKS UP THE GOODNESS
It turns out that there are many benefits of being outdoors, some more subtle than others. I love this little paragraph you’re about to read because it really shows the true beauty of nature and why humans really thrive when they make an effort to connect with it. When we immerse ourselves in nature, the forest air holds three beneficial elements, amazing for your wellbeing:
- GOOD BACTERIA. yep, it’s not just in your kombucha, good bacteria also exists out in nature’s very own air. As we troop around in the park, we bathe and breathe in a diverse range of good bacteria, which plays with our own gut bacteria, boosting our immunity.
- OILS. We’re exposed to essential oils released by the plants and wood, called phytoncides (which means plant-derived exterminator). What’s cool about it is that it helps fight off potentially bad microorganisms (also boosting your immune system!)
- NEGATIVE IONS. Unlike negative human beings, negative ions are beneficial for our bodies. They are created naturally by evaporating water, therefore are often present in forests and near bodies of water (i.e the ocean or lakes). So how do these little guys do good for us? Negative ions make peace with the free radicals in our cells by oxidation. Not getting too deep into the biochemistry of things, your cells are basically refreshed and your immune system strengthened. It also happens to relax taut nerves, triggering your rest and digest component of your autonomic nervous system which can optimise your digestion.
OTHER MINDFUL BENEFITS
A few other benefits I was able to experience when I embarked on this day trip were:
- BEING PRESENT. As I walked past the trees and shrubs along the trail, I noticed and focused on the small things in nature, such as teeny tiny daisies, the marbling of the rock formations and the blue colour gradings of the ocean. When you notice such things, it helps your mind to stop “time travelling,” thinking of the past of future and purely be present and happy.
- FRIENDSHIP LOVE. It was so lovely to be able to do this track with one of my gal pals, especially as you become so focused on the hike that you are made to make great conversation. If you’re lucky and you’re in for a long walk, you even find yourself pushing beyond the limits or comfort zone of conversation beyond small talk to a new place where the good conversation begins. You step into the next level of friendship and everyone knows humans are based on human connection, it’s just healthy for the soul. There’s nothing better than feeling supported by true friends you can have real, original conversations with.
- INSPIRATION. When you’re exploring nature, you realise how small your problems are in the world, and appreciate all the possibilities that exist for you and the place you’re in. All the things, the leaves, the dirt and each insect make you feel like a tiny part of this big world, and that you might as well live in the present and do what you love.
So my tip? Get outside this summer (or winter) and love every moment of it!