Most naturists/nudists believe that social nudity has significant health benefits. They’re very probably right. However, there doesn’t seem to be much clarity about exactly how nudity is beneficial for one’s health. We’re going to take a close look at that issue here. It’s going to take some time to give a good explanation. But if you want the quick answer, it’s this: social nudity helps counteract psychological stress. And if you’re in a hurry, you can jump here for the quick summary.
In the early days of naturism (up to 1940, say), there was a strong emphasis on healthful living. In Germany, where modern naturism originated in the late 1890s, nudity was considered to be a part of healthful living, whose principles were sometimes referred to as Lebensreform: “life reform”. The principles included such things as abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, and (other) addictive drugs, exercise, healthful diet (especially vegetarianism), living in “harmony” with nature, and exposure to fresh air and sunshine.
However, for the most part, these tenets were principles that were emphasized along with nudity. They were not particularly connected with nudity in a logical way, except that nudity was regarded as the “natural” state of humans. Scientific knowledge about health was limited 100 years ago, so nudity was simply considered to be self-evidently healthful, hence it was an appropriate accompaniment of other aspects of a healthy lifestyle.
Today, most of these tenets (other than nudity) are widely accepted by the general public – probably at least as much as within naturism itself. So it is difficult to regard them as beneficial aspects of contemporary naturism specifically. Many naturists/nudists do not observe one or more of these principles in their own lives.
It is also debatable, with regard to some of these principles, whether the positives exceed the negatives as far as physical health is concerned. An example is the purported health benefits of sunshine, which has perhaps the most obvious relation to nudity. It is true that some exposure to sunlight (in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum) is necessary for humans to synthesize vitamin D in the skin. It is also true that some amount of vitamin D is essential to avoid certain diseases, rickets in particular (for children). Research has also occasionally suggested other health benefits of vitamin D, but most claims aren’t well established, or the required dosages are unknown. For instance, there may be some beneficial effect of vitamin D for tuberculosis. Before antibiotics existed, people suffering from TB went to sanatoriums for “sunshine cures” (if they could afford it). Even in this case, the benefit is uncertain, but early naturists were influenced by the practices of their time.
The downsides of excessive exposure to sunlight (the UV part, in particular) are not trivial: dried, prematurely aged skin, sunburn, and melanoma. UV light from tanning beds is the same as from the Sun, and there’s little doubt about its potential harmfulness, especially for people of age 30 or under. For the pros and cons of sunlight as a source of vitamin D, see the Wikipedia article.
About 20 years ago The Naturist Society published its list of 205 Arguments and Observations In Support of Naturism. In that list, Arguments 50 through 61 were offered in support of the claim that “Naturism promotes physical health.” It would seem that there should be some strong points in that list. Unfortunately, most points are either weakly supported by evidence, or else have little direct relevance to physical health.
Argument 51 specifically relates to vitamin D. Even though the necessity of vitamin D for preventing rickets is clear, it’s not necessary to get it from exposure to sunlight, since other sources – such as seafood, fish oil, or vitamin D fortified milk or orange juice – are just as good, without the downsides of UV exposure. Besides, if you live anywhere it’s not perpetually cloudy, you can, at least in the warmer months, get all the vitamin D you need from moderate sunbathing without being completely naked.
Other arguments offered in this subset have very little direct relation to health and are debatable besides. For instance “59. Clothing hides the natural beauty of the human body, as created by God.” And “60. Clothing makes people look older, and emphasizes rather than hides unflattering body characteristics.” Aesthetics and health really are not the same thing at all… though people often act as if they were. “Attractiveness” tends to be, statistically, a sign of good health. (And that’s why evolution has made it something that humans value.) However, attractiveness is a sign, not a cause, of good health, hence the confusion. Attractiveness isn’t essential for actually maintaining good health. (Although it can help, if it enables you to have a good social life.)
Other arguments from 50 through 61 deal with possible harmful effects of clothing, especially excessively tight clothing. They generally suffer from weaknesses, such as lack of solid evidence or lack of direct connections with health. In general, the arguments offer little that cites a specific direct benefit, supported by solid evidence, of nudity for physical health.
There is, however, one argument in this list which is rather interesting: “53. An obsessive sense of modesty about the body often correlates with a reluctance to share healthy forms of touch with others.” There actually are various sorts of scientific evidence that “sharing touch with others” is healthful – even (in particular) non-sexual touch. We’ll return to this point later.
Arguments 4 through 14 concern purported benefits of nudity for mental health. Although they are generally vague, they do have a “common sense” feel to them. More importantly, they are probably also, in fact, the best way to understand how nudity can be beneficial for physical health. This is because there is now a good scientific understanding of how psychological factors affect physical health – as we’re about to see in detail.
This isn’t to say that most diseases are caused or enabled mainly by psychological factors. If you’re sick, it’s generally not “all in your head”, not because you have “bad attitudes”, and not because you “just don’t want” to get well. The physical roots of most diseases – viruses, bacteria, parasites, poor nutrition, genetic errors, obesity, lack of exercise, or simply age-related physical degeneration, etc. – are still important. However, in addition to all of that, there is now a good understanding of how psychological factors – what goes on in your brain – can also worsen or even cause disease.
It turns out that psychological stress, especially chronic stress, is a major factor in several physical diseases, like cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. Psychological stress may or may not result from physical stress, such as physical injuries, overwork, lack of sleep, illness, etc. But we’re about to focus on the non-physical causes.
Nudists and naturists often say that stress reduction is one of the main benefits of social nudity. This seems to be true, and we’ll see some of the reasons for that. In fact, it appears that the ability of nudity to help ameliorate psychological stress is also the main way that nudity is beneficial for physical health. Oddly enough, of the 205 Arguments, there’s only one that even mentions stress: “12. The nudist, literally, has nothing to hide. He or she therefore has less stress, a fact supported by research.”
In order to support the claim that nudity is beneficial for physical health, we need to consider a series of questions:
- What is stress?
- What are the main sources of psychological stress?
- What are the physiological consequences of stress?
- How is psychological stress harmful to health?
- How does social nudity help reduce psychological stress?
In order to keep this as brief as possible, there won’t be a lot of details. There is, however, now a vast scientific literature that explains and gives evidence for just about all the points to be made here. The scientific findings don’t usually deal with nudity specifically – it’s still a taboo subject. However, if you accept that social nudity is like other things known to reduce stress – and there are solid reasons for that – the connection is pretty clear.
What is stress?
Suppose you are out for a hike in the hills. You go around a bend in the trail, and just 10 feet ahead of you on the trial is a large rattlesnake. Your heart starts to pound, you forget about the trail mix you’ve been nibbling on, you stop daydreaming about the new car you’d like to buy, and you look quickly around for the nearest large rock or stick. There is a fair size stone nearby, but it’s a pretty large snake, and you decide maybe a strategic retreat is your best bet. That’s stress.
Stress is not inherently a bad thing. Our experience of physical stress is a result of evolution that makes it possible for us to deal most effectively with physical threats, such as dangerous animals, combat with other humans, and falling into a swift river. This response, often called the “fight or flight” response, has obvious survival value, and hence is favored by evolution. For the same reason, most other complex animals, even fish, have a similar response. This response includes effects that make our senses focus on the threat, make the heart pump more strongly, and reduce activity of less immediately critical body functions, such as digestion and the immune system.
In earlier times, stress was usually not a chronic thing. Whatever dangerous situation was involved, the problem was usually resolved quickly – for better or for worse. Before the invention of agriculture and the resulting new kind of social organization, there were relatively few sources of chronic stress. These might include inadequate sources of food or water, extreme temperatures, or conflict with hostile tribes.
However, in modern times, the situation is reversed. At least in relatively prosperous countries there is little threat from wild animals and hostile neighbors. But instead there are a host of other sources of stress: financial worries, fear of losing one’s job, actual unemployment, overwork, inadequate sleep, chronic pain, loneliness, tension in relations with a spouse or other family members, low socioeconomic status, and general lack of control of important aspects of one’s life. The result is that stress now is often chronic.
Occasional stress in emergency situations is a small problem compared to the emergency itself. But chronic stress is entirely different. It’s a big health problem, for a variety of reasons which have only recently been recognized and understood. Humans evolved with fewer sources of chronic stress, so our bodies are not well equipped to deal with it.
Most modern sources of stress have a psychological component. Even stress from physical causes like pain, inadequate sleep, or overwork have psychological ramifications. Such things can make us anxious, depressed, hostile, have difficulty sleeping, and generally miserable. Psychological states that accompany stress can have a direct effect on physical health. And the reason is that the brain itself directly and indirectly controls the somatic effects that are characteristic of stress.
There is, it’s now known, no clear separation between the mind and the body. If someone tries to tell you that some physical ailment is “merely” psychosomatic and “all in your head”, don’t be persuaded that you can deal with it simply by mental effort and “positive thinking”. The brain will do what evolution has programmed it to do in stressful situations – so the most effective approach requires dealing with the stress itself.
How does the brain react to stress?
There are various areas of the brain that are activated in response to stress, such as the amygdala (which registers fear) and the limbic system (which includes the amygdala and traffics in other emotions, such as sadness, excitement, and anger). But one primary interface between the brain and the somatic response to stress is through a relatively small part of the brain: the hypothalamus. This has a direct private line to a small adjacent endocrine gland beneath the brain, the pituitary gland, which in humans is about the size of a pea. The pituitary in turn interfaces to much larger endocrine glands, the adrenal glands, which are located far away, on top of the kidneys. This interface is effected by emitting “releasing hormones” into the bloodstream to instruct the adrenals to produce (among other things) stress-related hormones. (Don’t stress out about the technical terms here; there won’t be a quiz.)
There are two main types of stress hormones produced by the adrenals. One is the “glucocorticoids” (also known as “corticosteroids”), of which the most commonly discussed is cortisol. These hormones are produced in the adrenals in response to releasing hormones in the bloodstream. As just noted, this is a result of brain activity acting through the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland. As the name suggests, these hormones stimulate production of glucose (a sugar that is the main source of energy used by the body’s muscles). Glucocorticoids also have suppressive effects on the immune system.
There is a second type of stress hormone produced in the adrenals – epinephrine and its close relative norepinephrine. These may be more familiar by the names adrenaline and noradrenaline (even though they’re hardly the only hormones produced in the adrenals). These hormones affect many different cell types in the body. Among their effects they increase heart rate, respiratory rate, and levels of blood glucose. All of these effects make more energy available to muscle cells – which makes possible the fight or flight response. Just about everyone is familiar with the “adrenaline rush” sensation precipitated by dangerous situations, or simulated dangerous situations such as amusement park rides or watching horror movies.
The net effect of all these hormones is an increase in heart rate, which pushes blood more rapidly through the cardiovascular system. Blood carries both glucose and oxygen to the muscles, as well as to the heart itself. This enables all muscles to work harder in order to either fight a sudden threat or else escape from it. This is how the original perception of danger by the brain is translated into effective action.
The fight or flight response is a very good thing for survival in the face of occasional threats. Chronic psychological stress leads to almost exactly the same response, because the brain is originating the same signals to the adrenal glands. Unfortunately, if this response occurs continually, instead of occasionally, the results can be quite bad for the body in many different ways.
How is psychological stress harmful to health?
The most obvious bad thing that happens if the body is continually responding as if it is in the presence of a serious danger is excessive wear on the whole cardiovascular system. The heart must work harder all the time, so it will wear out sooner. Blood pressure is always at a higher than normal level, which damages the blood vessels. Although the blood vessels are quite strong and seldom burst (unless completely blocked), they do sustain internal damage.
This damage leads to inflammation, produced by the body’s immune system, just as happens when you have a cut or abrasion to your skin. Inflamed blood vessels become sticky, so that stuff like cholesterol and fat that normally circulates in the blood sticks to vessel walls in the form of “plaque” – causing “hardening of the arteries” (arteriosclerosis). Layers of built-up plaque constrict the flow of blood. The plaque can also break off, obstructing an artery completely – yielding a heart attack or stroke.
Chronic stress can lead to numerous other health problems besides cardiovascular disease. Higher levels of cortisol themselves cause problems. One of the main effects of cortisol is immune system suppression. This is not a bad thing when dealing with occasional threatening situations, because it allows the body’s resources to be devoted to dealing with the threat instead of supporting the immune system. Hormones similar to cortisol, in fact, are commonly prescribed for dealing with autoimmune diseases that result from an overactive immune system. But an artificially suppressed immune system causes other problems, such as vulnerability to infections, slow wound healing, progression of cancer, and… stomach ulcers.
Wait a minute. Perhaps you have read somewhere that the “real” cause of ulcers isn’t stress, but instead a certain bacterium, Helicobacter pylori. It is true that in the 1980s it was determined that H. pylori is the primary cause of ulcers. However, it has also been found that only about 10% of people infected with this bacterium get ulcers, so there must be other factors, too, and stress is probably one. Why? There could be a number of reasons, but a suppressed immune system, caused by stress, may be unable to keep H. pylori sufficiently under control.
There are quite a few other health problems that have been found by scientists to be statistically associated with psychological stress – especially metabolic diseases associated with obesity, such as (adult onset) diabetes. High blood pressure also tends to be associated with obesity and may also occur with diabetes. The causal relationships among metabolic diseases are complicated. But excessive “bad” cholesterol (LDL cholesterol) in the blood contributes, together with high blood pressure, to plaque build-up in the arteries, leading to arteriosclerosis. Obesity leads to higher levels of fatty acids and triglycerides in the blood, which also contribute to plaque build-up – and to insulin resistance, when cells are unable to store any more fat. Insulin resistance leads to diabetes and even higher (and harmful) glucose levels.
The connections among all these factors are pretty complicated. However, the risks of both cardiovascular disease and diabetes are seriously raised by the combination of stress-related effects (high-blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, elevated glucose levels) and obesity-related effects (insulin resistance, triglyceride levels, higher glucose levels). Your health might be OK with either obesity or lots of stress – but both together are especially unhealthful.
The list of possible health problems from psychological stress could go on, but by now the point should be pretty clear. Stress is not good for you. So, in what ways, exactly, does social nudity reduce stress and thus promote better health?
How does social nudity help reduce stress?
There are various ways to reduce stress. You could take prescription tranquilizer drugs, such as anxiolytics, to reduce anxiety. But they can be addictive, and have other undesirable side-effects, as well as expense. Alcohol works too, but certainly has its own problems. Some other recreational drugs also work – but they’re mostly illegal. And if the factors causing your stress remain in place, do you really want to rely indefinitely on prescription drugs, alcohol, or illegal drugs for relief?
There are much better alternatives to reduce harmful levels of stress. The best way, of course, is simply to reduce or eliminate the source of stress – if you can. Quit a job that is too unpleasant. Get out of a bad relationship. Move to a place with a lower cost of living. And so on. But such things are more easily said than done. And suppose you’re stressed by something you just have little control over, such as fear of losing a job you like because of economic conditions. Or in-laws who drive you crazy. Or a serious health problem like early-stage cancer.
Social nudity can help, since it brings a number of inherently stress-reducing practices, opportunities, and features. Almost all of these are available to you outside of social nudity. But if you become involved with social nudity, you’ll find most of these things readily available as part of the package.
- Friendly social support system. One of the commonest sources of stress is loneliness and social isolation. By definition, social nudity can take care of that. It may require some considerable initial effort to even try social nudity. But if you manage to do that, you have a ready-made network of like-minded people to provide you with plenty of friendships and socializing opportunities.
- Increased self-confidence. For reasons covered above, chronic fear and anxiety are big stressors. Fear of failure in some endeavor is a very common type of fear. We’ve already covered how social nudity can help build self-confidence here.
- Body acceptance. For many people, unhappiness about the appearance of their body is a big source of stress, and perhaps an obstacle to a happy social life. We’ve discussed this benefit of social nudity here.
- Focus on the present instead of past/future.When you’re naked with other people, your attention tends to be strongly focused on the present, the here-and-now. This can overcome fears of unpleasant future prospects (e. g. job loss, family problems). It also overcomes feelings of remorse over past mistakes and failures, or reliving terrifying experiences of the past (PTSD). Without such negative emotions, psychological stress is automatically reduced.
- De-emphasis on social status. A great deal of clothing is designed to create messages about socioeconomic status (SES). Wearing expensive, fashionable clothes communicates that the wearer is successful and affluent. People who cannot afford to wear such clothing, or who simply prefer not to because of the social groups they identify with, are prone to feel they have low SES. A lot of research has shown that low SES is itself a source of stress, because people of low SES generally have less control over their lives. Clothing is certainly not the only means for signifying SES. But its absence in social nudity does remove one source of stress.
- Emphasis on positives. Normal, everyday life is a mixture of positives and negatives. Stress results when the latter significantly exceeds the former. The world of social nudity isn’t a perfect utopia – far from it. But it does distract attention from life’s negatives, and so promotes a more positive outlook on life. There’s less emphasis on things like physical appearance, social status, and conformance to unreasonable social norms. People involved in social nudity want to share the pleasure of being naked, because an individual’s happiness is enhanced when others are also enjoying life. Happiness is contagious.
- Nude yoga and meditation. Yoga and meditation are practices which emphasize emptying your mind of mundane concerns, “turning off the noise upstairs”. Although the details vary among different types of yoga and meditation, you learn to sharply narrow your mental focus (or unfocus it entirely), away from stressful thoughts. Although you can do yoga and meditation alone and/or without being naked, doing them naked, as part of a group, can reinforce your motivation to continue and advance your level of mastery. Both yoga and meditation are proven to reduce high blood pressure (caused by stress), at least while engaged in the practice, so they may be beneficial after particularly stressful experiences.
- Nude exercise. As was pointed out at the start, physical exercise was an integral part of German Lebensreform and early nudism. And like the other components of those movements, the health benefits were emphasized. You can still get plenty of exercise without being naked or part of a group. But as with yoga and meditation, this is something that’s often more satisfying as part of a group of naked people. And some types of exercise are simply not possible alone – volleyball, basketball, tennis, etc. What’s the connection with stress? Again, it’s the focus on the present, the here-and-now. And if exercise improves your physical fitness and general health, you may be able to lose weight and reduce psychological stress associated with obesity. If you join a landed nudist club, you also gain access to exercise facilities (swimming pools, tennis courts, gym equipment, etc.) as part of the deal.
- Nude soaking, sauna. Sweat lodges were used by indigenous people of the Americas long before Europeans arrived. Nobody knows when saunas were first used in Nordic countries, because it was before most of their recorded history. And natural hot springs were undoubtedly used by any humans who had access to them as long as there have been humans. Such things have been popular because they are physically relaxing and stress-reducing. This is probably because of endorphins that reduce stressful physical pain and tension. Even if you don’t own a sauna or spa yourself, if you participate in social nudity, there are probably others in the group (or club/resort) who do.
- Nude massage. There are many different types of massage, but most of them have been shown to reduce high blood pressure (caused by stress) and pain (which is a source of stress). Most commercial massage providers do not especially encourage full nudity, in spite of how any clothing interferes with a full-body massage. Many nudist clubs and resorts do offer fully nude professional massage. And many members of such clubs and resorts have learned to perform massage pretty well themselves. Physical touch, of course, is an integral part of any massage, and is stress-reducing by itself.
That’s it. As you can see, there are a lot of ways available in social nudity that can significantly counteract psychological stress – and therefore promote physical health and quality of life.
However, as bad as stress is for health, it degrades quality of life in other ways too. As the journalist Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber wrote in The Art of Time,
What I fear most about stress is not that it kills, but that it prevents one from savoring life.
So the ways that social nudity helps control stress make this benefit even more valuable. Life is better savored without clothes.
The popular science magazine Science News just published a very informative feature article on stress and health in its March 7, 2015 edition: Chronic stress can wreak havoc on the body. Highly recommended.
Here’s a more technical review of the biology of how stress due to social causes leads to inflammation and other immune system problems: Stress Fractures – from the January 2015 issue of The Scientist
The definitive book on psychological stress for the general reader is Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, by Robert Sapolsky. Although it’s long (over 400 pages, with 100 additional pages of notes), and full of technical detail, it’s well worth the effort.