The Healing Power of Nature

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Story at-a-glance -

  • More people than ever say they’re experiencing a sense of unease and anxiety with anything too far removed from modern life, aka technology, which one author contends stems from a disconnect from nature
  • With every new high school graduating class, we’re that much further away from what our forebears knew — that a connection to nature may be far more crucial for our physical, spiritual and emotional survival than we realize
  • For combat veterans who may or may not exhibit visible injuries, the power of nature is a more restorative therapy by far than drugs and, in some cases, more effective than counseling
  • Because the Earth carries an electron-rich, negative charge, walking barefoot outside provides a powerful and abundant supply of antioxidant electrons that zap free radicals, lower inflammation and heal your body in numerous ways

By Dr. Mercola

For most people in the U.S., life is easier than it was 50 years ago. Automation, transportation, communication and information are much more sophisticated now than they were then. At the touch of a button or the sound of your voice, nearly anything considered imperative for survival is available, instantly. But there are plenty who will tell you that, in comparison, life today isn't better; it's simply faster.

Behavioral scientists of every stripe are becoming more vocal in the observation that at the same rate that efficiency has been increased, something else has been lost.

More than a few people will say they experience a vague feeling of unease and even anxiety with anything too far removed from their creature comforts. Florence Williams, author of "The Nature Fix," contends that part of the angst stems from a disconnectedness from nature. People often choose what's familiar and nature has become a foreign commodity.

A century ago, and even half that, people had a much greater opportunity to explore nature, or at least be outdoors more often and for longer periods than they do today. Then, people shopped in stores instead of online.

For many people under the age of 30, you'll notice a certain unwillingness to detach from the "familiar" known as technology (or at least cell service). After-school activities once involved outdoor recreation with others, rather than engaging in solitary bouts of online isolation.

Williams observes that one of the symptoms of "mass generational amnesia enabled by urbanization and digital creep" is that kids in both the U.S. and the U.K. spend about half the time outdoors that their parents did a few generations ago. Today, even out of school, about seven hours of kids' days are spent head down, staring at a screen.

Where We've Come From and Where We're Going

As a result of what she termed our "epidemic dislocation from the outdoors," Williams listed problems like vitamin D deficiency, obesity, depression, loneliness and anxiety. But there are other, unforeseen and increasingly common consequences, according to MinnPost's Earth Journal:

"These include the disorders mentioned above and a wide range of others — mostly mental but some physiological — with roots in the particular stresses of the modern, high-pressure, ever-accelerating lifestyle, which is pursued largely indoors and may be especially problematic for the youngest among us."1

It's hard to believe that so few health authorities have been able to project where the fascination with technology in its many forms would take society as a whole. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with technology; the bigger problem is that so few people realize what it's replacing. But if you've never had something, it's hard to know what you're missing. Our collective myopic drive to succeed and sometimes just survive can blur our focus.

We've become, C.S. Lewis noted, "like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea."2 Exacerbating the problem is that with every high school graduating class, we're that much further away from what our parents, grandparents and generations before us knew — that nature, the essence of the living world and the wonders it holds — may be far more crucial for our physical, spiritual and emotional survival than we realize.

Modern Life: The Physical, Emotional and Spiritual Toll

Williams noted a link between what's become an almost absent drive to connect with nature and the onset of the aforementioned chronic ailments (and unfortunately, that's just the short list). She asserts that while most of us are busy making the proverbial mud pies:

"We don't experience natural environments enough to realize how restored they can make us feel, nor are we aware that studies also show they make us healthier, more creative, more empathetic and more apt to engage with the world and with each other. Nature, it turns out, is good for civilization."3

Put another way, the ease and comfort generally recognized as a residual of "success" has come with a price, but unless individuals, families, towns and whatever entity "management" represents see the trend for what it is and do something to slow the leak, it will only get worse.

For some among us who've experienced some of the worst of what the world can throw at them, such as combat veterans who may or may not exhibit visible injuries, the power of nature is being used as one of the most restorative therapies — far better than drugs and, in some cases, more effective than counseling.

An Idaho-based nonprofit group called Higher Ground4 offers veterans suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) opportunities to experience "therapeutic adventure," believing the sensory elements of nature can reduce trauma. But the scientific explanations are imprecise. Williams quoted Stacy Bare, one of Higher Ground's coordinators:

"I think we all believe in the power and mystery of the great outdoors, but these are difficult things to quantify by science. Is it difficult to do a double-blind control study in nature? Very. I don't think we have to hit that standard, but we have to have a more systematic approach to how we evaluate the effects of the outdoors."5

How Can Nature Fix What's Broken?

Rather than going on about the detriments of modern life on the human psyche, suffice it to say that all over the world, the disconnect between modern life and the great outdoors hasn't gone unnoticed. In some areas, researchers, naturalists and city planners are remedying the shortfalls in novel ways, Williams observed, such as in:

  • Scotland, where poor people in Glasgow slums have been studied in regard to the harm suffered as a result of their disconnect from nature.
  • Japan, a therapeutic practice called "forest bathing" is designed to reduce stress, increase immunity and even help manage diabetes.6 One study explains how being in or viewing plants, flowers, urban green spaces and natural wooden materials helps people relax, lower heart rates and blood pressure.7 Even in the U.S., forest bathing clubs have popped up, including in areas such as San Francisco, where members convene to slowly make their way through forests and indulge fully in the natural world.8
  • Finland, showing that parks designed to arouse visitors' connection to the natural world with ancient woodland settings helps arouse intense encounters called metsänpeitto, which means "covered by the forest."
  • Singapore, which has the third-highest population density in the world, is being upscaled by urban planners to create a green infrastructure using green walls and vertical gardens, some of which produce food.
  • Sweden, where a unique therapy "nature-based rehabilitation" garden in an all-weather, glass greenhouse was made available for patients disabled by work-related stress. The nature-based rehabilitation program affects the outcome with regard to return to work one year after.9

There are even volatile compounds called phytoncides released from trees10 that have been shown to reduce stress hormones and anxiety while improving blood pressure and immunity, according to Dr. Eva Selhub, a lecturer in medicine at Harvard Medical School and a clinical associate of the Massachusetts General Hospital.11

The Healing Power of Gardens, Even in Hospitals

Embracing nature is therapeutic in ways that can't be explained. Scientific American cites a 1984 study conducted by environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich,12 the first to use scientific measurements to show how powerful something as seemingly innocuous as a hospital garden can be in speeding patients' healing time, no matter the illness:

"Ulrich and his team reviewed the medical records of people recovering from gallbladder surgery at a suburban Pennsylvania hospital. All other things being equal, patients with bedside windows looking out on leafy trees healed, on average, a day faster, needed significantly less pain medication and had fewer postsurgical complications than patients who instead saw a brick wall."13

Whereas most physicians saw the noisy, smelly, notoriously distressing "disorienting mazes" as an unfortunate and unalterable reality in most hospitals prior to the study, Ulrich's research was deemed groundbreaking. Since then, it's been proven that even a few minutes of viewing trees, flowers and water can improve patients physiologically.

In fact, garden views and garden-like alcoves strategically placed throughout hospital settings were shown to reduce anger, anxiety and pain and help patients, visitors and hospital employees relax.

Improvements were noted in peoples' blood pressure, muscle tension, heart and electrical brain activity. Also, according to Scientific American,14 research shows that incorporating a design with hospital patients in mind calls for a number of factors to help bring the "healing" into garden settings:

  • Keeping it green, ensuring that layered landscapes including shade trees, flowers and shrubs at various heights take up 70 percent of the space, with 30 percent as concrete walkways and plazas.
  • Keep it real, as "Abstract sculptures do not soothe people who are sick or worried."
  • Easy accessibility, with easy-to-open doors, and being located in close proximity to patients.
  • Engaging multiple senses so that garden elements can be not just viewed but touched, smelled and heard, but in the background and not too overwhelming.
  • Navigable walkways that wheelchairs and people accompanied by IV poles can walk though comfortably, with paving seams no further than one-eighth of an inch apart to prevent tripping.

The Science of Grounding: Getting Down to Earth

When your skin comes into contact with the Earth, such as when you walk barefoot through a lush meadow or on a sandy beach, there's more to the experience than just a sense of relaxation and well-being. It's a scientific study in the way your body is wired to be electrical.

Research is emerging in some of the most surprising places, indicating that there's more to "earthing" or "grounding" than meets the eye. Because the Earth carries an electron-rich, negative charge, it provides a powerful and abundant supply of antioxidant electrons that effectively zap free radicals.

When your bare feet come into contact with the ground, you absorb large amounts of negative electrons through your soles that's sufficient enough to maintain your body at the same negatively charged electrical potential as the Earth. In this way, your contact with nature is more than emotional or spiritual, although it can be those things; coming into close physical contact with the Earth — the essence of nature — is also physiological. It brings healing in ways that are quantifiable.

How to Go 'Earthing' for Health Benefits

James Oschman, an expert in the field of energy medicine, with a bachelor's degree in biophysics and a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, observed that grounding is especially beneficial for fighting inflammation, which is at the root of nearly every disease and disorder. Oschman and his colleagues listed a number of ways grounding imparts dramatic health advantages, including:

  • Improved sleep
  • More rapid wound healing
  • Reduced stress
  • Reduced pain
  • Reduced blood viscosity

Maybe your schedule somehow makes it impossible to take a three-week vacation to the Bahamas, or even a one-week excursion to the nearest mountains or wooded areas, but if you value your health and the health of your family, you should give nature a better chance at being a part of your lifestyle.

An hour after work, a half-hour during lunch time, a day off or weekends spent in close contact with trees, flowers, flowing water and the sound of birds will lead to improvements in your psyche, your attitude and your overall health that may surprise you. In addition, Selhub recommends being mindful when you're in nature and bringing more nature into your life by:15

  • "Go[ing] crazy with the plants," adding them to your office, home or anywhere you spend a lot of time
  • Finding a room with a view of nature whenever possible, and when it's not, adding photos of nature to your space
  • Considering a meditation retreat that involves spending time in nature, which has been found to be "moderately to largely effective in reducing depression, anxiety, stress and in ameliorating the quality of life of participants"16
  • Combining your workouts with nature by doing them outdoors; exercising in the woods, for instance, decreases fatigue and increases positive mental thoughts and feelings of invigoration compared to exercising on a treadmill17
  • Connecting with nature via your diet. "Think about bringing nature into your body, especially if you can't get out into nature on a regular basis. Eat foods that are naturally available on this earth … Even better, plant your own vegetables if you can — you'll get the combined benefits of eating healthy, spending time in nature, and getting some exercise."18

You can also try starting a journal to track how you feel when you start and make a concerted effort to get in touch with nature. You may find yourself recording improvements that go far beyond the physical, positively influencing your work environment, relationships and above all, inner peace.