How Winter Walks Boost Wellness

During these cold winter months, it’s natural for us to want to move inward, both emotionally and physically. As the holidays have wound down, many of us have found fewer reasons to leave our homes and are hunkering down for the remainder of the season. During this time of year, rest is imperative. If we watch nature and lead by its example, this is the perfect time to slow down and replenish our reserves to strengthen our spirit and immunity. Giving our body’s the time to rest can create more mental clarity, lower stress levels, and even boost our immune system. One of my favourite ways to slow down is by spending time in nature.

Fresh air livens the senses. Braving the cold can do you good, just ask Wim Hof. Now I’m not proposing you go jump in an arctic lake or sit stripped down in your underwear in the snow, but I will say a short walk on a brisk winter day is refreshing. Even in the coldest season of the year, when the landscape is covered in a blanket of snow and the grass that peaks out are no longer green but a dull brown, nature is still alive and well, most importantly there to support you.

Our coniferous trees shine during this time. These trees have been used by healers for centuries to aid respiratory infections in the form of tinctures, teas and salves. To quote John Dutton from the show Yellowstone “You know what I think? I think god or nature whatever you wanna call it, gave us all these places, these herbs, these minerals, this mud, all these things to fix what happens to us because God knew what a wreck we’d make of ourselves”. And I couldn’t agree more, everything in nature is by design. It is no coincidence that the remedies for common ailments that occur with each season grow in unison with timing for their need, the earth knows exactly  what its inhabitants need to survive and thrive.

Right now we are all collectively feeling stressed. The world is a mess, and the only way I can imagine someone isn’t feeling overwhelmed by it all is if they’re living under a rock (which might not be a half-bad idea at this point). So how do we better manage that stress or support ourselves? With nature. Time spent outdoors has been proven to reduce the stress hormone cortisol in the body. Now if you’re unfamiliar with cortisol, a quick explanation of this hormone is it is like your body's built-in alarm system. Cortisol is made in your adrenal glands and promotes our “fight or flight” response. If you’re someone who’s chronically stressed like me, then your body is constantly creating more cortisol to survive. We must keep levels of cortisol in the body to a healthy range, as too much can cause inflammation and other undesired health effects. By spending time outdoors, you can naturally lower your cortisol levels and help your body balance its energy, that way you can handle stress better and decrease inflammation. Decreasing inflammation is also key here as if we have inflammation in the body our macrophages (cells in our innate immune system) are too busy trying to fix that instead of protecting you from other potential threats like bacteria or viruses, which we know everyone is worried about right now.

Time spent in nature quite literally boosts your immune system. This is ancestral knowledge we all intuitively know, but what exactly is the science behind it? Well, let's dive in. Trees and plants emit an aromatic compound called “Phytoncides”. They are a natural part of a plant's immune system that are released daily as a part of their metabolic function. They release VOCs (volatile organic compounds) which contain antimicrobial, antibacterial and anti-fungal qualities that defend against insects, animals, diseases and decomposition, all by creating a protective microclimate around them. Just by being outdoors near these trees and plants we automatically breathe these beneficial phytoncides into our lungs. These compounds then get into our bloodstream and induce human natural killer (NK) cell activity. Our NK cells are important as they boost our immunity by killing off cells that may have viruses or tumours. A study in Japan shows that just one hour spent in the forest surrounded by plants, specifically pines that release the phytoncide pinene, can increase its compounds circulating levels in your body by sixfold. This is so important because it proves that phytoncides such as pinene or other trees essential oils can induce human natural killer cell activity, which boosts our immune system! The real kicker here? These amazing affects from phytoncides are shown to last over a long period of time before they begin to wear off. We're not talking mere days but instead multiple weeks, which means the benefits of just a weekly walk in the woods can boost your immune system continually and for the long term. 

Now I realize not everyone lives near green spaces or can make the trek to a forest for a walk, but walking around in your neighbourhood is still sufficient. Any time spent in nature is beneficial in my eyes. But if you are stuck inside, self-isolating perhaps, there’s another solution. In 2009 a study of the immune function in twelve healthy male subjects, age 37-60 years, who stayed at an urban hotel for 3 nights showed that exposure to phytoncides through vaporizing essential oils from trees can also contribute to increased NK activity. Essential oils that would be beneficial include Pine, Spruce, Fir, Cedar and cypress which are all commonly used to alleviate airways. This means you can easily diffuse a few drops of these oils at home to add beneficial phytoncides to your indoor environment's air. Here’s a quick breakdown of the common uses of these essential oils:

  • Pine: Pine needle distillations are known for their fresh fragrance that clears and decongests the air of odour-causing organisms. In aromatherapeutic applications, pine is a popular choice for balancing breathing, reviving wellbeing and mental clarity, and massaging muscles.
  • Spruce: This oil traditionally was used to boost sluggish energy levels and the aroma is perfectly empowering.
  • Fir: White Fir offers an essence that clears the compass of inner pathways, giving air to emotional alignment.
  • Cedar: Is traditionally used to cleanse and deodorize, enhance meditation, and encourage deep breathing.
  • Cypress: Is used to ease heartache, overcome challenges, and navigate your way through the churning tides of grief. On the skin, it can be toning and drying, said to balance excess and with emotions it can "dry up" excess tears.

My favourite way to enjoy the beneficial phytoncides of essential oils when I’m unable to get outside is with my Salt Inhaler from Living Libations. I add a few drops of their “Longevity Liquid” which contains black spruce to its chamber and inhale for about 10 minutes. Personally, Living Libations is my favourite brand of essential oils that I can trust is extracted and made ethically. They are also a Canadian company out of Haliburton Ontario which is very near and dear to my heart!

So if you’re fearful of getting sick during these cold winter months, or just want to give yourself an immune boost, get outside! Nature will nourish you, even in the darkest and coldest season of the year.


Studies quoted in this article:

Li, Qing. “Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function.” Environmental health and preventive medicine vol. 15,1 (2010): 9-17. doi:10.1007/s12199-008-0068-3
Li, Qing et al. “Phytoncides (wood essential oils) induce human natural killer cell activity.” Immunopharmacology and immunotoxicology vol. 28,2 (2006): 319-33. doi:10.1080/08923970600809439
Li, Q et al. “Effect of phytoncide from trees on human natural killer cell function.” International journal of immunopathology and pharmacology vol. 22,4 (2009): 951-9. doi:10.1177/039463200902200410

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