Nature Therapy: The Health Benefits of a Natural Environment

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According to one study, as many as three-quarters of U.S. teens and adults are deficient in vitamin D, which is obtained naturally from sunshine and some foods, or supplements.
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According to a Japanese study, people who gazed on forest scenery for 20 minutes saw a 13% decrease in stress hormone concentration than people in an urban environment.
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In “The Nature Principle,” Richard Louv shows how nature can boost mental acuity and creativity; promote health and wellness; help us build smarter, more sustainable businesses, communities and economies; and strengthen human bonds.

In The Nature Principle (Algonquin Books, 2011), Richard Louv presents a compelling case that the time has come for us all to reenvision a future that puts aside scenarios of environmental and social apocalypse and instead taps into the restorative powers of the natural world. In this excerpt from Chapter 4, “Fountains of Life,” Louv reveals the healing mental and physical effects of nature therapy.

Time spent in the natural world can help build our physical, emotional, and family fitness. The mind/body connection, of course, is a familiar concept, but research and common sense suggest a new container: the mind/body/nature connection.

Over two thousand years ago, Chinese Taoists created gardens and greenhouses to improve human health. In 1699, the book English Gardener advised the reader to spend “spare time in the garden, either digging, setting out, or weeding; there is no better way to preserve your health.” And a century ago, John Muir observed that: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

Today, the long-held belief that nature has a direct positive impact on human health is making the transition from theory to evidence and from evidence to action. Certain findings have become so convincing that some mainstream health care providers and organizations have begun to promote nature therapy for an array of illnesses and for disease prevention. And many of us, without having a name for it, are using the nature tonic. We are, in essence, self-medicating with an inexpensive and unusually convenient drug substitute. Let’s call it vitamin N — for Nature.

New research supports the contention that nature therapy helps control pain and negative stress; and for people with heart disease, dementia, and other health issues, the nature prescription has benefits that may go beyond the predictable results of outdoor exercise. The restorative power of the natural world can help us heal, even at a relative distance. On the surgical floors of a two-hundred-bed suburban Pennsylvania hospital, some rooms faced a stand of deciduous trees, while others faced a brown brick wall. Researchers found that, compared to patients with brick views, patients in rooms with tree views had shorter hospitalizations (on average, by almost one full day), less need for pain medications, and fewer negative comments in the nurses’ notes. In another study, patients undergoing bronchoscopy (a procedure that involves inserting a fiber-optic tube into the lungs) were randomly assigned to receive either sedation, or sedation plus nature contact — in this case, a mural of a mountain stream in a spring meadow and a continuous tape of complementary nature sounds (e.g., water in a stream or birds chirping). The patients with nature contact had substantially better pain control.

Nearby nature can be an antidote to obesity. A 2008 study published in American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that the greener the neighborhood, the lower the Body Mass Index of children. “Our new study of over 3,800 inner city children revealed that living in areas with green space has a long term positive impact on children’s weight and thus health,” according to senior author Gilbert C. Liu, MD. While the investigation didn’t prove a direct cause-and- effect, it did control for many variables, including the neighborhood’s population density. The results support those who believe that changing the built environment for inner-city kids is just as important as attempts to change family behavior.

While it’s true that too much exposure to sunshine can lead to melanoma, too little time outside can also have a negative health impact. According to one study, as many as three-quarters of U.S. teens and adults are deficient in vitamin D, which is obtained naturally from sunshine and some foods, or supplements. African Americans are especially at risk, one researcher explains in Scientific American, because “they have more melanin or pigment in their skin that makes it harder for the body to absorb and use the sun’s ultraviolet rays to synthesize vitamin D.” Some scientists question the percentage of people who may be at risk (which may be closer to half than three-quarters), but there is agreement that vitamin D blood levels are dropping and that deficiency is associated with a large number of health problems, including cancers, arterial stiffness in African American teens, type 2 diabetes, lower mood levels during winter, decreased physical strength in young people, and decreased lung function for children with asthma. Vitamin D also has been found beneficial in reducing risk for some infectious diseases, autoimmune diseases, fractures, and periodontal disease.

More research has been conducted on the impact of nature time on mental health than on physical health; the two arenas (along with mental acuity) are interrelated. The science isn’t all in, and available evidence is not entirely consistent. Much of it is correlative, not causal. However, an honest reading of the science can yield cautious conclusions.

Several reports, including a thorough literature review by researchers at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, chart what is known. According to the Deakin review, each of the following health benefits, among others, is supported by anecdotal, theoretical, and empirical research:

• Exposure to natural environments, such as parks, enhances the ability to cope with and recover from stress and recover from illness and injury.
• Established methods of nature-based therapy (including wilderness, horticultural, and animal-assisted therapy) have success healing patients who previously had not responded to treatment of some emotional or physical ailments.
• People have a more positive outlook on life and higher life satisfaction when in proximity to nature, particularly in urban areas.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Nature Principle by Richard Louv, published by Algonquin Books, 2011.

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