The Nature Pill

I’m sure everyone has heard their parents say, “go outside and get some fresh air” at some point in their life, probably amid a heated discussion or argument. For me, being told what to do made me even more upset. But apparently, I should have just listened.

What are we talking about?

A new study states that by taking just 20 minutes out of your day to spend time in a place that you feel connects you with nature could substantially lower your stress. They’ve in a sense, created a “nature pill”.

It is common knowledge that spending time outside reduces your stress, “but until now it was unclear how much was enough, how often to do it, or even what kind of nature experience will benefit us” (Dr. MaryCarol Hunter, and Associate Professor at the University of Michigan and lead author of the study). This study is the first of its kind to quantify the effects of being “one with nature”.

What did they find?

The 8-week experiment involved 36 participants who were given the task to venture outside for 10 minutes or more 3 times a week. They were specifically told to spend time in a place where they felt they were interacting with nature.

Although this was a very personal (and subjective) experience, participants were asked to adhere to the following rules: do it during the daylight, do not perform aerobic exercises, and avoid the use of social media, internet, conversations and reading. The point was to mindfully spend time with nature, while also considering busy life schedules and personal commitments.

Dr. Hunter commented, “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.”

What they found after taking saliva samples once every two weeks during the experiment and once before it began, was that spending just 20 minutes with nature substantially reduced cortisol level (stress hormone). But if they spend just 10 more minutes outside, hormone levels dropped at their greatest rate – spending a longer time outside also added to the reduction but just at a slower rate.

Where do we go from here?

We go outside of course! However, while this research is exciting for the psychology community and reassuring for people who are already trying to connect with nature regularly, there is a lot of work that still needs to be done.

This study only had 36 participants who, more than likely, were willing to take the time out of their day to spend time outside. It would be interesting to see how people with depression, anxiety and various psychological disorders would respond and/or cope with this type of treatment.

Another key component of this study was ensuring that participants had this “nature pill” during the daylight. What does that mean for people who live in the north? Especially in the winter months, sunlight can be scarce and that already adds to a very prominent disorder – Seasonal Affective Disorder. An important follow-up for this study would be to understand how the lack of sunlight might affect this treatment.

What’s the BIG IDEA?

For the first time, researchers essentially quantified the effects of spending time connecting with nature. Just 20-30 minutes outside reduced cortisol levels by 21%!

Mental health is an extremely important topic, and while discussions are still getting better, it’s still sometimes hard to talk about. There is still a stigma around going to see a therapist and taking pills. Going outside to reduce stress is something that is natural and normalized.

My hope is that this research can blossom into something that improves our mental well-being and improves our ability to talk about it.  

Journal Reference


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