As a nature lover, I know the benefits of getting outdoors. I can feel my whole body exhale, and my worries seem to melt away when I immerse myself in the trees, fresh air, and blue sky. I know all too well that “cooped up” feeling when I haven’t had any vital fresh air in a few days.
More and more scientific research is beginning to understand the benefits of nature on our physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
We’ve discovered that being in nature reduces anxiety, eliminates depression, and lowers blood pressure, but now there is research that shows how being outdoors boosts your immunity.
In a recent study out of Finland, research showed that interacting with the forest floor changed children’s immune systems for the better.
Researchers undertook a 28-day experiment in 10 different urban daycare facilities. The study comprised of three groups of 75 children aged 3–5. In the first group, the daycare facilities were set in a natural environment and took children on daily outings into nature. The second group updated their play yards with a real forest environment. They rolled out grass and grew plants commonly found in a forest floor’s undergrowth, such as blueberries, dwarf heather, and mosses. They also allowed children to get their hands dirty by giving them access to green materials and encouraging them to care for plants in planter boxes. As for the third group, they operated with standard gravel or pavement yard throughout the study.
In one month, the children exposed to green materials (groups 1 and 2) had healthier gut and skin microbe diversity. They also had higher T-cell and other immunity markers in their blood than before the study, compared to the children in urban daycares with standard pavement yards.
“The results of this study support the biodiversity hypothesis and the concept that lower biodiversity in a modern living environment may lead to an uneducated immune system and consequently increase the prevalence of immune-mediated diseases,” the researchers concluded.
While prior research had showed a link between exposure to greenspace and better immunity, it was still not yet shown to be a causal factor until this study.
What Does This Mean?
While the study will need to be replicated on a larger scale, it confirms the impact of low-biodiversity environments on the immune system’s urban areas. Children in urban environments tend to have higher rates of asthma and allergies than those who live in rural areas. While air pollution could also be a factor, this study points directly to lower biodiversity as the potential cause.
“It would be best if children could play in puddles and dig in organic soil.”
– Ecologist Aki Sinkkonen (University of Helsinki)
Ways you can boost your child’s immunity
Let Them Get Dirty
Exposure to the earth’s soil microbiome greatly impacts the microbiome diversity on your child’s skin and in their gut, and positively affects their immunity. Get children involved in the garden or let them dig around in the dirt and moss in the woods. There’s a reason kids are always naturally drawn to the earth, mud, and muck. Clothes can always be washed. Make sure the outdoor space you’re letting your children play in is not sprayed with chemicals or pesticides.
Some states have adopted laws to warn residents about the safety of lawns or turfs, as well as when and where pesticides and herbicides have been sprayed. Ask local leaders. If you live in an urban environment, create a kitchen herb garden or several organic flower boxes, and let your children dig and grow their flowers and herbs.
Visit Nature a Minimum of Five Times Per Week
As stated in this study, exposure to green materials at least five times a week was beneficial. Whether this is a visit to the woods, a local park, or your backyard, encourage outdoor time in greenery. This can be a fun thing to do as a family and boost immunity together!
Feed Children an Immune-Boosting Diet
Whole, organically grown foods with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables is always the way to go. Cutting down on inflammatory foods such as refined sugar, white flour, and ice cream help keep immune function strong as well as adding probiotic foods, such as miso soup or kombucha, to your child’s diet.
Supplements to Support Healthy Immunity
Adding a vitamin D supplement goes a long way to support a healthy immune system and maintain energy levels in the darker winter months. Make sure your children also get plenty of vitamin C. Vitamin C is one of the most powerful antioxidants for the immune system.
Encourage Good Sleep Habits
Getting the right amount of sleep is essential for immune health, but even more important for your child’s growing body. To prepare your child, create a regular schedule, and stick to it. Two hours before bedtime, unplug from electronic devices, draw a warm bath, tuck your children in bed and read them stories. Create a nightly ritual together to ensure peaceful rest for your little ones (and you!).
As a woman who loves the great outdoors, I hope that this study encourages you and your family to spend more time connecting with nature. We are still seeking the scientific understanding of nature’s vast benefits, but you can feel the benefits beyond reason or understanding when you spend time outside. Human beings are not separate from nature, we are a part of it, and science is finally catching on.