Why Taking a Walk in the Woods Improves Your Gut Health

Walk in the woods

June 14, 2020

By Dr. Mahmoud Ghannoum

Stopping to admire a bed of flowers, walking through tall evergreen trees, strolling alongside a river, or simply lying in the sand next to ocean waves… chances are, at least one of those scenarios — if not all of them — sound peaceful and uplifting to you.

Turns out that time spent in nature benefits more than just your spirits: It can lower stress levels, boost your immune system, affect your heart health, and improve depression and anxiety, all of which influence your gut microbiome.

The verdict is clear — being in nature improves overall health — yet so many of us spend day after day cooped up indoors, with the exception of our daily commutes. Maybe you can’t do anything about the majority of your indoors time, for example, if you work in an office.

But these five reasons why you should spend more time outside might be enough incentive to actually take that lunchtime walk you always say you’re going to go on. And even if your walk is through a concrete jungle, you’ll still reap many of the same benefits.

1. Being outside boosts your immunity

Your immune system does two very important things for your gut microbiome: It keeps harmful bacteria from colonizing and growing, and it maintains ideal environments for helpful bacteria to flourish. Additionally, probiotics may support your immune system and help your body more easily fend off viruses and harmful bacteria.

Spending time in nature affects your immune system in the best way, and because your immune system and microbiome are so closely related, those benefits may transfer to your gut.

The overarching relationship? When you spend time in nature, you support your immune system, and your immune system supports your gut — and then your gut supports your immune system back. Very much a win-win situation.

2. Being outside lowers your stress levels

Ever notice that high-stress periods in your life are accompanied by gas, bloating, or other digestive discomfort? That’s because stress restricts blood flow to your digestive system; reduces the number of friendly bacteria in your gut; and creates conditions that allow unfriendly microbes to grow.

The opposite is also true: The lower your stress levels, the happier your microbiome, and that cycle continues to build upon itself. Wondering how you can make that low-stress-happy-gut cycle part of your daily life?

Go outside!

You probably already know that sunshine makes you feel good, but you may not know just how deeply nature works to improve your mood — going outdoors can serve as a superior form of therapy even for those with severe depression.

3. Being outside encourages you to move

You already know that exercise aids in weight loss, improves mood, helps you sleep, and reduces your risk of virtually all diseases. But physical activity also encourages the good little guys in your gut to colonize and grow, increasing the populations of beneficial bacteria in your digestive system by up to 40 percent.

Just by being outside, you present yourself with the opportunity to move, even if it’s simply some gently stretching or a brief walk. Even the slightest addition of physical activity to your day can provide serious benefits.

4. Being outside exposes you to more microorganisms

Low diversity in the gut is heavily associated with a higher risk of inflammation and disease. As a general rule of thumb, the more species that reside in your belly, the healthier you are. Aside from taking probiotic supplements and eating a variety of foods, one of the best ways to increase your microbial diversity is to simply step outside.

When you go outdoors, you expose yourself to millions of microbes, many of which can benefit your body and microbiome. In fact, scientists now know that exposing children to dirt and germs is actually essential for strengthening their immune system, which we discussed above as relating to the gut microbiome.

5. Being outside lowers your risk of heart disease

There’s a lot to consider when it comes to the ways your gut and your heart work together. For example, your gut bacteria can influence your risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes; increase your risk for high blood pressure; affect your cholesterol and blood fat levels; and harden your arteries.

Whew — now that you know all of that, you should also know that you can reduce your risk of all those things just by going outside. Cool, right?

Think about everything you’ve learned so far: Going outside can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression; boost your immune system; encourage you to exercise; and increase your microbial diversity. All of those things relate back to your gut, which relates back to your heart. Notice how all the different parts of your body work together to best serve you when you give it the right conditions.

How to add more nature to your life

Like many people, you probably feel like you don’t have enough time to get outside each day. The key here is to shift your perspective. Instead of thinking, “I only have 5 minutes before the next meeting, I might as well just stay here,” think, “I have 5 minutes to get a breath of fresh air!”

That 5 minutes might make or break your afternoon at work — time spent in nature is associated with better creativity and problem solving, after all. Here are a few ways to add more nature to your life, even when you only have a few minutes.

If you have less than 10 minutes

  • Take a walk around one block wherever you are
  • Slip off your shoes and wiggle your toes in the grass
  • Turn your face up to the sun (but close your eyes or wear sunglasses!)
  • Stop to smell a flower
  • Open a window and gaze outside

If you have half an hour

  • Take a walk, preferably somewhere green, like a local park
  • Eat your lunch outside
  • Phone a friend while sitting in the grass

If you have an hour or more

  • Go for a hike — wooded areas offer even more health benefits
  • Explore a new part of town and go looking for public art
  • Spend some time by a body of water
  • Start or work on a garden

Spending time outdoors for good health is nothing new: Some of the world’s greatest authors, artists, and scientists credit their health and inspiration to nature. Henry David Thoreau wrote in his essay Walking, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

Are you suffering from digestive discomfort? Frustrated by weight gain or the inability to lose weight? Feeling tired and out of sorts? Wishing you could get back the good health you used to enjoy? Dr. G’s free webinar, Discover the 3 Missing Keys to Healing and Restoring Your Gut Today, can help you get back to your best self quickly in a few simple steps.


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