Stress is at an all-time high — and, luckily, doctors have a new prescription for it. Only it costs nothing and doesn’t require a glass of water to swallow.
A new study published in Frontiers in Psychology found a significant reduction in stress hormone levels after just 20 minutes spent in nature. With this knowledge, docs can now prescribe a specific “dose” of nature as an easy, no-cost way to reduce patients’ angst in a high-tension world. They’re calling it the “nature pill.”
"We know that spending time in nature reduces stress, but until now it was unclear how much is enough, how often to do it, or even what kind of nature experience will benefit us," said MaryCarol Hunter, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Michigan and lead author of the study, in a press release.
During the eight-week study, researchers prescribed a “nature pill” of 10 or more minutes at least three times a week. Every two weeks, participants’ saliva was tested for levels of the stress hormone cortisol before and after the nature pill. “Nature” was defined as “anywhere outside that, in the opinion of the participant, included a sufficiency of natural elements to feel like a nature interaction,” according to the study.
But that doesn’t mean you can just spend 20 minutes outside while scrolling through Twitter and suddenly feel happy and carefree. The requirements for participants were: 1) that they spent their time somewhere the “gives you a sense of nature” during daylight, and 2) avoided activities like aerobic exercise, social media, the internet, phone calls, conversations, and reading during that time, according to Dr. Hunter. They were free to choose whether they sat in one place or took a stroll, the time of day, the nature location, and how long they spent in nature — as long as it was at least 10 minutes.
"Building personal flexibility into the experiment allowed us to identify the optimal duration of a nature pill, no matter when or where it is taken, and under the normal circumstances of modern life, with its unpredictability and hectic scheduling,” said Dr. Hunter.
The data from the experiment showed 20 minutes to be enough time in nature to significantly reduce cortisol levels. Those who stayed out a bit longer — 20 to 30 minutes — experienced the greatest stress-busting benefits. Beyond 30 minutes, cortisol levels continued to drop, but more slowly.
"Healthcare practitioners can use our results as an evidence-based rule of thumb on what to put in a nature-pill prescription," said Dr. Hunter. "It provides the first estimates of how nature experiences impact stress levels in the context of normal daily life. It breaks new ground by addressing some of the complexities of measuring an effective nature dose."
So the next time you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed by life’s many complications, spend your lunch break in the great outdoors — no phones allowed.