Waves of positivity: the health benefits of the ocean’s negative ions
The sound of waves crashing into each other, the smell of sea salt in the nostrils, and the soft texture of sand under our feet – we all know how energizing it can feel to spend even just a few hours by the ocean. For centuries, the healing power of sea air has been studied, discussed, and analyzed in an attempt to scientifically prove something that human intuition has always pointed to – proximity to nature doesn’t just promote good physical health, it can also improve mental well-being.
As early as the 5th century BCE, the Greeks had discovered the restoring power of water on human health. Hippocrates and Plato both wrote extensively about the benefits of hydrotherapy, recommending bathing and long walks to relieve muscular pain and prevent diseases. That early presentment was correct, although it would take a few centuries before science could back up the claims.
The reason why sea air can improve one’s mood by reducing stress levels, blood pressure, and heart rate is negative ions, chemical particles abundant in fresh air that stimulate the body’s capacity to absorb oxygen and help to balance serotonin levels. Negative ions – which, despite the name, have nothing negative about them – were first examined closely by Dr. Clarence Hansell, the American research engineer who pioneered the first study on the topic in the 1930s. Hansell demonstrated how artificially generated ions would alter his colleagues’ moods, documenting the responses of both positive and negative ions to show how the environment can affect a person’s emotional state.
Since then, many scientific studies have shown that connecting with nature has a direct correlation to happiness. Research conducted by the University of Derby in 2016, for example, shows that exposure to the natural environment significantly increases self-esteem in children and improves the symptoms related to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Similar effects are seen in people suffering from mental health disorders, whose conditions have been seen improving after regular contact with nature.
If you needed any further excuse to take a holiday to the beach, here you have it. Absorbing the “good” ions released by moving water can fix your body and mind in unexpected ways. Let’s dive deeper into the many benefits negative ions can bring into your life.
What’s so good about the ocean’s air?
In short, ions are atomic particles charged with electricity that float in the air. They are generated by a splitting of molecules caused by the action of sunlight, radiation, wind or tides. Ions can be positive or negative, depending on whether they acquire or lose electric charge. The air we breathe is charged with electrical energy and therefore it is rich in both positive ions and negative ions. To support our physical and mental well-being it is essential to be in an environment where positive and negative ions are balanced. Unfortunately, this can be challenging in a tech-driven world.
In an ideal setting, 1000 to 1500 negative ions per cubic centimeter should be present in the air we breathe. However, many of the appliances we use on a daily basis release positive ions that cause an imbalance. Computers, air conditioning, and cigarette smoke all generate positive ions that can cause harm. In a crowded city, less than 100 hundred negative ions per cubic centimeter may be found in the air – twenty times less than the amount found on a beach.
Sea air carries up to 2000 negative ions per cubic centimeter and prolonged exposure can help restore the balance needed for us to thrive. But it’s not just sea air. Waterfalls and thunderstorms are just as effective in releasing negative ions. The crushing of waves, the falling rain and the hitting of a river onto the rocks all generate negatively charged ions. The movement of water can drastically increase the number of negative ions, reaching tens of thousands of particles in environments where motion is particularly intense. No wonder the sound of moving water always feels so relaxing, no matter in which form it comes.
What are the health benefits of negative ions?
Recent research clearly shows that negatively charged ions have positive effects on all living organisms. Plants, for example, grow healthier and faster, while humans tend to be more alert and relaxed when exposed to such particles. But there is more to it. Negative ions, which are invisible and odorless, enter the bloodstream as we breathe charged sea air and produce a biochemical reaction that can boost our energy levels and reduce stress.
Negative ions accelerate the release of oxygen to cells and tissues, offering relief from muscle and joint pain. They also hasten the discharge of serotonin, which has been shown to alleviate symptoms of depression. A 2013 study published on BMC Psychiatry also showed that prolonged exposure to negative ions reduced symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) to a record minimum. A review on the International Journal of Molecular Sciences reported that negative ions are also great in regulating sleep patterns, boosting the immune system and inhibit the growth of potentially harmful bacteria.
Where to take advantage of negative ions?
As we’ve mentioned, the motion of the water causes the release of large amounts negative ions in the air. Unless you enjoy sitting under a thunderstorm, a walk on the beach is probably the best option to make the most of nature’s healing effects. While spending time in any natural enviornment – mountains, lakes or forests – will be beneficial, surf spots with big waves will guarantee the energy boost you are looking for after hours of screen time. Alternatively, national parks where one can get close to waterfalls are just as good. Here are some of the best places to get your dose of air vitamins.
One of the most popular destinations for international surfers is Sunset Beach, in Haleiwa, 40 miles from Waikiki. From the mid-sixties to the mid-eighties, Sunset Beach hosted the legendary Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surfing Championship, the competition that saw some of the greatest champions of the discipline compete on some of world’s most difficult waves. December and January are the ideal months if you want to experience Oahu’s ocean’s force, although it’s perhaps a good idea to leave the water pipelines formed by these massive waves to the pros.
Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has been a popular destination for surfers since the 1970s and continues to be a favorite spot thanks to its pristine environment, massive waves and untamed nature. Sitting on the East Coast of the island, Arugam Bay is considered of the world’s top surf spots. The best season to experience the power of the Indian Ocean is between July and August, when thrill-seeking surfers invade the beaches together with wild monkeys coming from the lush forest that grows just steps away.
No place says “big wave surfing” like Nazaré. It was here that the record for the biggest wave ever ridden was set – Hawaiian surfer Garrett McNamara dominated an 80-feet tall monster wave in 2013. Praia do Norte, the most famous beach in town, is impossible to miss. From Nazaré’s lighthouse, located on a rock formation at 1000-feet altitude, one can take in the sheer siza of the ocean, seeing some of the largest waves in the world crash into each other.
Florianópolis, affectionately called Floripa by local residents, is one of the most popular beach resorts in Brazil and one of the country’s surfing hot spots. Located between Sao Paulo and Porto Alegre, Florianópolis boasts 42 different beaches you can choose from, from Barra da Lagoa, where waves tend to be tamer, to Praia da Joaquina, where riding a board might be a challenge if you haven’t done it before. Nevertheless, the fun atmosphere and the abundance of beaches will make you forget what stress even means.
Refined and austere, crowned heads used to meet in Biarritz before the city became one of France’s top surfing destination in the 1950s. Located in the French Basque Country just 30 miles from San Sebastian, Biarritz used to be a sleepy fishing village until Empress Eugénie decided to start spending her summer holidays here, transforming it into a fashionable seaside town. Thanks to the North Atlantic swells that make their way down the Bay of Biscay, Biarritz’s was have gained legendary status. Every year the Surf Festival gathers international surfing stars that compete in one of Europe’s best-known celebrations of the water sport.
For those who are not too keen of waves, Gulfoss in Iceland will be the ideal alternative. Formed by a double stream that falls into a narrow canyon with a truly impressive scenic effect. It’s the best-known waterfall in Iceland and one of the most frequently photographed by visitors. On sunny days, the water appears to change color, taking on golden reflections. Because of this reason the Icelanders have named it Gullfoss, meaning precisely golden waterfall (gull = gold, foss = waterfall). If you visit, beware – you will get wet. But it’s totally worth it.
The Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia
The Plitvice Lakes National Park is one of the best-known natural reserves in the country, containing 16 picturesque lakes and numerous springs connected by a series of waterfalls. The lakes are considerably deep, with blue or greenish waters that have created various underground tunnels, sinkholes, and caves. The park is one of the main tourist attractions of the Croatian region and while it does indeed get busy during the summer it’s a place like no other. The National Park was established in 1949 and covers nearly 75 square miles where bears, wolves, lynxes and deer all take advantage of the refreshing atmosphere this living network of moving watercourses creates.