Spending time at the beach is a true luxury—one that feels joyful, relaxing, and fun every time. That's why summer is such a beloved season. It allows for us to leave our worries on the sand and bathe ourselves in bliss. The thing is, that feeling isn't just in our heads. There's actual science behind the fact spending time by the beach is good for both your mental and physical health. A study by the University of Exeter found people who live near the beach have better overall health and wellbeing. Another cites the enhanced sense of calm from hearing the ocean (more so than relaxing music) and relaxation of the nervous system due to a reduction of city noise and technology. The list goes on.
Dr. Heidi Hanna, the director of education for the American Institute of Stress and Reef brand ambassador, has made this type of research her career. Coined "beach brain," this phenomenon is both miraculous and not entirely surprising. To find out more about it, Hanna answered all of our questions, bringing light to the fact that maybe, perhaps, we should all just quit our jobs and move to the beach. Or get a job at the beach? You can decide on the logistics. Below, read more of her fascinating findings.
What is "beach brain?"
"'Beach brain' has come up as part of my research as a neuroscientist over the past couple of years—studying how the sights and sounds of the beach directly affect our psyche. 'Beach Brain' integrates the mental and physical benefits of what we have come to appreciate about spending time at the beach, and provides a specific pathway for reaching that same state of mind and body, even when we’re stuck in the office.
What are the direct benefits?
According to Hanna, increased relaxation will help reduce toxic stress hormones in your brain and body. Which, of course, makes sense. But it'll also aid in reducing muscle tension, improving focus and attention, and enhancing an overall sense of peace, happiness, and wellbeing. "The synergistic impact comes from both the reduction of stress and the increase in feelings of calm," she says. So, we’re not only decreasing what’s causing the problem, we're enhancing our brain's ability to perform at its best. She adds, "Considering chronic stress hormones shape the brain to be more agitated, irritable, aggressive, and reactive over time, these micro shifts of going to the beach can be brain health protective." These benefits can take anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of hours to take effect. Keep in mind, though, there is a synergistic and cumulative effect when we can spend more time or visit more often. Hanna breaks down the benefits of the beach by looking at the three Ss of the beach—sun, sand, and surf.
- Sunshine. Of course, it lifts our mood and energy levels. But, accordigng to Hanna, natural light and vitamin D are necessary for metabolism, bone health, and immune function. Plus they're shown to decrease depression.
- Sand. "When we imagine the beach, we can all easily feel the warm sand between our toes," Hanna says. "In fact, the sensation of being barefoot (the foot actually has the most nerve endings per square inch as compared to the rest of the body) in nature has a grounding effect and is shown to boost your mood." This is a phenomenon called "earthing," and it's very real. "Plus," Hanna continues, "the negative ions in salty ocean air have been shown to reduce inflammation and improve immune function."
- Surf. "Listening to the sound of waves crashing has been shown to enhance relaxation more than any other sound," Hanna shares. "It also decreases blood pressure and improves heart rate variability." And, the sound is not the only beneficial thing about the surf—according to Hanna, the minerals in ocean water help reduce pain for people with arthritis and aid in skin repair and elasticity.
Can you reap the benefits without living by the beach?
As much as we’d all like to hit the beach every day, we know that’s not realistic. That’s why Hanna works to help people channel the beach from anywhere, even from their home or office. "'The beach' can be a state of mind we take with us through sensory experiences if we have the right tools," Hanna explains. "The first step is simply putting on a pair of sandals and channeling the energy that comes from freeing your toes." She suggests keeping a pair under your desk and slipping them on for a few minutes a day, or wearing them around the house (even in the winter). "Your brain will actually start to associate those shoes with the same relaxation properties that the beach offers," she says. You can also mimic the smell of the negative ions that come from salt air. "Mix essential oils to create your own 'beach blend,' she suggests. Look to include douglas fir, frankincense, grapefruit, and lime oils." Last, a popular meditative method is simply listening to the sounds of the ocean (which Hanna calls "quite possibly the most relaxing sound on the planet"). "If you put all three together," she says, "you’ll be surprised how you can transport yourself to the sand and surf from anywhere."