The healing power of nature

As a naturopath, I often advise my patients, especially cancer patients, to make exercising outdoors in a park or anywhere with greenery as a daily routine. In this way, they can get closer to nature and be embraced by its healing power.

A walk in nature can be a wonderful healing experience

Vis medicatrix naturae”, the Latin phrase of the healing power of nature was attributed to Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine”. It has been one of the main principles upheld by those who practise natural medicine since ancient Greek. Although traditionally referred to as the body’s internal ability to restore health by itself, it has also been associated with mindful contact with the external natural-based environment – green space, forests and parks in particular [1]. Such notion is not merely a vague concept, research over the past thirty years has provided much-supporting evidence that frequent interaction with nature can benefit an individual not only physically, but also emotionally, mentally, and spiritually [2].

Nature and physical health

Living in a busy city can be stressful. Traffic, dense crowds, haze, over-stimulation by lights and sounds, etc. can all elevate the stress hormone, cortisol, to an unhealthy level [3]. Elevated cortisol level has been associated with interference with learning and memory, lower immunity and bone density, increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart diseases, and many more health conditions [4].

Be stress-free with nature

Research has found that Interacting with nature can effectively alleviate physical stress and reduce cortisol level. A study in Netherland has shown that outdoor gardening is more effective than indoor reading in reducing elevated cortisol level due to physical stress [5]. Even though exercise is known to reduce stress, exercising in a forest environment is found to be more effective in lowering cortisol levels than exercising in an urban environment according to a study conducted in Japan [6]. Even in the city, having the opportunity to encounter green space can help to reduce stress level. A study in the UK found that higher levels of green space in residential neighbourhoods were linked to lower perceived stress and a healthier cortisol decline [7].

Nature – the natural immune enhancer

Interacting with nature can also improve the immune response. According to Japanese health beliefs, a short, leisurely visit to a forest has the same healing effect as a natural aromatherapy. A study in Japan found that a 3-day/2-night trip to forest areas can increase the body’s Natural Killer (NK) cell activity and count [8]. NK cells are important white blood cells that play a critical role in fighting infections and cancer. Thus, “bathing” in the natural energy in the forest effectively boost the immune system.

In a hospital setting, even having a view of greenery through windows can help to speed up healing from surgery. This was found in a study of 46 patients who went through surgery to remove the gallbladder. Half of these patients who stayed in rooms with windows viewing the nature had shorter post-surgical hospital stays, took fewer painkillers, and received less negative comments from nurses, compared to the other half who stayed in rooms with no view [9] This study has since influenced the design of hospitals worldwide. For example, the latest hospital in Singapore, the new Ng Teng Fong General Hospital opened in June 2015, has a window for every bed to speed up a patient’s recovery [10].

Ng Teng Fong General Hospital and Jurong Community Hospital

Ng Teng Fong General Hospital in Singapore is designed with every bed has a window viewing the lush greenery outside.

Nature and emotional health

Nature can enhance the positive emotion of loving-kindness

Exercise in nature improves one’s mood and self-esteem, according to a study that analyses 10 green exercise case studies in the countryside of the UK. It was found that green exercise can reduce the negative emotion of anger-hostility, confusion-bewilderment, depression-dejection, and tension-anxiety [11]. The same group of researchers also found in another study that, even watching the images of nature while exercising on a treadmill helped to improve the mood of people compared to those exercising on the treadmill only [12]. Results from these studies suggest that exercise in nature can potentially deliver greater benefits not only physically, but also emotionally.

Nature and mental health

The natural environment can play a role in reducing mental fatigue and improve concentration. A study in the USA found that a view from the home window with nature made one more relax and comfortable, allowing the mind to recover quickly from tiredness, and better functioning [13]. Therefore, it is always a good idea to look out for greenery from a window whenever one feels tired from staring at the computer screen at work, a short glance can be mentally restorative.

Window view with green trees 2

A window view with greenery can help to relieve mental tiredness and improve concentration

Exposure to nature can also improve cognitive function and performance. We can better remember things after a walk in the nature compared to a walk in a busy street. This is reported by a study conducted in Michigan (USA) with 38 students attempting to listen to a sequence of numbers and repeat them in reverse order [14]. Similarly, another study conducted in southern California, USA, found that participants could perform proofreading better after coming back from a vacation in the wilderness compared to a vacation in the non-wilderness [15]. For children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), exposure to nature during play was found to improve their attention function and reduce the severity of ADD symptoms after play activities [16]. Hence, nature has a great restorative power affecting the mind.

Playing outdoors can help to improve ADD symptoms in children: Study.

Nature and spiritual health

Spiritual health is a process that activates spiritual awareness, personal capacity and potentials to go beyond the experience of the normal physical level. It has the characteristics of harmonious interconnectedness, purposeful and meaningful life, and faithfulness. Spiritual health can contribute to the holistic well-being and moral development of a person [16].

In awe with nature brings about a sense of spiritual awareness

One often feels the power of nature with a sense of awe and inspiration when experiencing the wilderness, which in turn deepen one’s spiritual growth, a result reported by a qualitative study that explores the wilderness experience as a source of spiritual inspiration with 12 participants experiencing wilderness for 3 weeks [17].  Watching wildlife can also contribute to the spiritual wellness, making one more connected to nature with a sense of awe, wonder and privilege and provoke a deep sense of well-being that transcends the initial encounter, which leads to spiritual fulfilment. This was reported by another study on the intangible benefits of wildlife encounters [18].

Visiting the nature can also bring about the transcendental experience. Described by many to be “a moment of extreme happiness; a feeling of lightness and freedom; a sense of harmony with the whole world; moments which are totally absorbing, and which feel important” [19]. Such experience greatly enhances one’s spiritual well-being.

Visiting the nature can also bring about the transcendental experience

Summary

In summary, nature has the unique power to heal our body and mind. Physically, interacting with nature helps to reduce stress, enhance immunity, and promote healing. Emotionally, a green environment improves one’s mood and self-esteem. Mentally, nature has restorative power on cognitive function and performance. Spiritually, nature can offer the transcendental experience that deepens one’s spiritual growth.

Wait no more, immerse yourself in the green outdoors as much as possible. You will be healed by nature.

Tired? Look out for a green patch!

References

[1]        A.C. Logan, E.M. Selhub, Vis Medicatrix naturae: does nature “minister to the mind”?, Biopsychosoc. Med. 6 (2012) 11. doi:10.1186/1751-0759-6-11.

[2]        L.E. Keniger, K.J. Gaston, K.N. Irvine, R.A. Fuller, What are the benefits of interacting with nature?, Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health. 10 (2013) 913–935. doi:10.3390/ijerph10030913.

[3]        V. Steinheuser, K. Ackermann, P. Schönfeld, L. Schwabe, Stress and the city, Psychosom. Med. 76 (2014) 678–685. doi:10.1097/PSY.0000000000000113.

[4]        C. Bergland, Cortisol: Why the “Stress Hormone” Is Public Enemy No. 1, Psychol. Today. (2013). https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201301/cortisol-why-the-stress-hormone-is-public-enemy-no-1 (accessed December 7, 2017).

[5]        A.E. Van Den Berg, M.H.G. Custers, Gardening Promotes Neuroendocrine and Affective Restoration from Stress, J. Health Psychol. 16 (2011) 3–11. doi:10.1177/1359105310365577.

[6]        M. Yamaguchi, M. Deguchi, Y. Miyazaki, The Effects of Exercise in Forest and Urban Environments on Sympathetic Nervous Activity of Normal Young Adults, J. Int. Med. Res. 34 (2006) 152–159. doi:10.1177/147323000603400204.

[7]        J.J. Roe, C.W. Thompson, P.A. Aspinall, M.J. Brewer, E.I. Duff, D. Miller, R. Mitchell, A. Clow, Green space and stress: evidence from cortisol measures in deprived urban communities., Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health. 10 (2013) 4086–103. doi:10.3390/ijerph10094086.

[8]        Q. Li, Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function, (2010) 9–17. doi:10.1007/s12199-008-0068-3.

[9]        R.S. Ulrich, View through a window may influence recovery from surgery., Science. 224 (1984) 420–1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6143402 (accessed December 7, 2017).

[10]      H.M. Chew, L. Lai, 10 things about the newly opened Ng Teng Fong Hospital in Jurong East, The Straits Times. (2015). http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/health/10-things-about-the-newly-opened-ng-teng-fong-hospital-in-jurong-east.

[11]      J. Pretty, J. Peacock, R. Hine, M. Sellens, N. South, M. Griffin, Green exercise in the UK countryside: Effects on health and psychological well-being, and implications for policy and planning, J. Environ. Plan. Manag. 50 (2007) 211–231. doi:10.1080/09640560601156466.

[12]      J. Pretty, J. Peacock, M. Sellens, M. Griffin, The mental and physical health outcomes of green exercise, Int. J. Environ. Health Res. 15 (2005) 319–337. doi:10.1080/09603120500155963.

[13]      R. Kaplan, The Nature of the View from Home, Environ. Behav. 33 (2001) 507–542. doi:10.1177/00139160121973115.

[14]      M.G. Berman, J. Jonides, S. Kaplan, The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature, Psychol. Sci. 19 (2008) 1207–1212. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02225.x.

[15]      T. Hartig, M. Mang, G.W. Evans, Restorative Effects of Natural Environment Experiences, Environ. Behav. 23 (1991) 3–26. doi:10.1177/0013916591231001.

[16]      A.F. Taylor, F.E. Kuo, W.C. Sullivan, Coping with ADD – The surprising connection to green play settings, Environ. Behav. 33 (2001) 54–77. doi:10.1177/00139160121972864.

[17]      L.M. Fredrickson, D.H. Anderson, A qualitative exploration of the wilderness experience as a source of spiritual inspiration, J. Environ. Psychol. 19 (1999) 21–39. doi:10.1006/jevp.1998.0110.

[18]      S. Curtin, Wildlife tourism: The intangible, psychological benefits of human-wildlife encounters, Curr. Issues Tour. 12 (2009) 451–474. doi:10.1080/13683500903042857.

[19]      K. WILLIAMS, D. HARVEY, Transcendent experience in forest environments, J. Environ. Psychol. 21 (2001) 249–260. doi:10.1006/jevp.2001.0204.

 

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