The Simplest Thing to Do to Improve Your Mood and Health Today
The simplest thing you can do to help your mood and overall health is to get outside. That's the message of several studies that found that early morning sunlight can help reset the body's natural circadian rhythms, allow you to get better sleep, and have more energy. Meanwhile, taking a brief walk in nature is enough to help you feel calm and lower the body's stress hormones, which cause you to store more belly fat and drive up blood pressure over time.
Consider the practice of yogis across the world who wake up unaided by an alarm clock with joie de vivre in the calm, quiet two 48-minute periods before the first glimpse of the morning sun, which they revere as Lord Rāma, to practice meditation of gazing into a flame, called trāṭaka.
For only the duration of time that the sun touches the horizon at dawn and dusk, it is quite a safe and potent practice to gaze into the emerging or fading sliver of sunlight. In Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya’s book Everyday Ayurveda, which I never tire of discussing, she gives insight into how Western doctors often oppose the practice—though Bhattacharya emphasizes the practice can only be done in the moments the sun is kissing the horizon. In the scripture known as the Atharvavedaḥ, there is a list of 22 diseases that can be cured by the grace of the morning sun. In many texts, when someone is informed they are recommended to worship the sun—to sunbathe, to contemplate, and to offer gratitude.
Study shows that morning sunlight resets the body's sleep cycle
This practice can also be achieved by looking into a candle flame, to relax the mind and allow the body to "reset." The purpose of the meditation is to connect with and strengthen the element of fire in the body, one of eight elements of the material world in the Ayurvedic philosophy: earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence, and false ego.
In recent years, studies have found that this practice of getting early morning sunlight is, in fact, scientifically proven to be beneficial to one's stress levels and circadian rhythms. A 2008 study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives states:
“When people are exposed to sunlight or very bright artificial light in the morning, their nocturnal melatonin production occurs sooner, and they enter into sleep more easily at night." The study authors explain the benefits: "The melatonin rhythm phase advancement caused by exposure to bright morning light has been effective against insomnia, premenstrual syndrome, and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).”
Spending time in nature helps your mood, study finds
In addition to incorporating rituals for connecting with nature into everyday life, studies show that it is important to spend time immersed in nature. A 2019 study found that people who spend at least two hours a week in nature are more likely to report better mental and physical health, and it can be as simple as getting into urban parks. Just being outside is a powerful way to boost your mood and strengthen your immunity.
Since many urban parks are tightly situated within heavily trafficked streets, getting into a more natural world where you will be far from airborne pollutants or hear honking and traffic sounds is key to reaping the full benefits. Choose a park with an abundance of trees or vistas out of earshot of busy streets.
Once a week (when possible), spend time in the forest to get the most oxygen into your lungs and get away from tiny particulate air pollution that can create inflammation, zap your energy, and ultimately promote disease. The Japanese call this “forest bathing,” since it's like a cleaning ritual for your lungs and bloodstream. Getting into nature can improve your mood and lead to an increase in your immune system's Natural Killer cells, which produce cytokines that go out and destroy any virus-infected cells. Spending four hours in the forest is even better; this can reduce your blood pressure by 7 mmHg!
While you are walking in the woods, try not to wear shoes with soles made out of materials like rubber or plastic, which act as electrical insulators. A growing body of research on "earthing" has shown that not connecting with the ubiquitous supply of negatively charged electrons on the Earth’s surface can cause psychological disturbances and poor health.
The negative ions at the beach can neutralize the free radicals in your body
When water crashes on rocks such as at waterfalls, or on the sand at the beach, the molecules' negative ions get released into the air, and these can latch onto positively charged molecules in your body, known as free radicals, and neutralize them. The result is that you feel restored, but studies show there is an actual benefit to your immune system. Studies show that being in nature, where these negative ions get released, can have therapeutic effects on your body and help you deal with the oxidative stress of daily urban life.
We casually interact with radiation all day long on our phones, computers, and devices, which shower us with positively charged electrons. Why not let Mother Earth's negative ions neutralize these positive electrons, which will leave us feeling more chill? If you have ever breathed in the ocean air at the beach and felt every part of your body easily relax, this is why. Can’t make it to the forest or the beach? You can still feel better when you walk on the bare earth, grass, or natural surface in bare feet.
It is our nature to walk, and the more we do it the better we feel
Ever feel better just going for a walk? Our ancestral genetics has led us to thrive when propelled by our own two feet. Including walking into one’s lifestyle has been shown to reduce the risk of premature death by eleven percent. Try to walk in urban areas near nature (for New Yorkers that's alongside Central Park) or near a boardwalk, with a water view, rather than not walking at all.
Bring nature into your home in the form of houseplants and a sunbathing spot
Fill your bedroom with houseplants, especially with what is called a "snake plant" since they abundantly emit oxygen at night. Find a spot to sunbathe, and better yet, find a spot to sunbathe nude, to allow the sun to soak into your skin and produce vitamin D, essential for immunity and bone health.
As far back as 1939, Dr. Abraham Myerson conducted a study of men that found that in just five days of getting sunlight exposure to the chest helped to boost circulating testosterone levels by 120 percent, and exposing their private parts tripled testosterone! But he also found that these levels dropped after eight days of no exposure to sunlight, returning to initial levels.
By the year 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population is projected to live in cities. If this is the direction things are going, it is even more critical to prioritize spending time in nature. As we plan for quality of life, designing cities with plenty of outdoor space, parks, and nature hikes, trails, and vistas will help us live happier and healthier now and in the future. Until then, let’s design our exercise and forest bathing rituals with natural health in mind.