Enjoying Nature as a Prescription for Health

How would you like to get a prescription saying, “Spend time in nature at least three times a week”, when you next see your doctor? For many of us who live in the modern world and are used to medications, treatments, and surgeries, this might sound surprising, or even odd. However, there is a growing body of research showing evidence that connecting with nature may play an important role in healing and preventing chronic conditions, supporting mental health, and slowing down the aging process. 

Many environmental organizations, medical institutions, and individual medical providers are becoming interested in implementing the healing properties of nature in treatment plans for their patients and community members. We can find information under fancy new names such as Echo Therapy, Nature Therapy, or Green Exercise, but connecting to nature as a healing ritual has been used for thousands of years in many cultures and healing traditions around the world. Ayurveda, Chinese Medicine, Indigenous Native American practices, and Shamanism are examples of long-standing traditions that incorporate the healing power of nature to treat and prevent various diseases. These traditions recognize the undeniable fact that we, as humans, are part of nature. We thrive when we are connected to our natural source, and we start to deteriorate if we separate ourselves from it. 

Blue Zone, a study led by Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Explorer, and his team discovered five main areas in the world where people enjoyed long (100 years or more), happy, and healthy lives. Even though these communities were spread around different parts of the world such as Sardinia, Okinawa, Ikaria, Loma Linda, and Costa Rica, they all shared some universal principles including a strong connection to nature.

Currently, a non-profit organization, ParkRxAmerica, has a vision to make parks and other protected areas around the country accessible to the general public and easy to find by medical professionals who are ready to prescribe nature as medicine; a growing number of doctors and their patients participate in Walk with a Doc program initiated by Dr. David Sabgir, a cardiologist from Columbus, Ohio; Nature Champions Program is a partnership with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Environmental Education Foundation, and various health-care organizations designed to encourage children and families to engage in outdoor activities for health and well-being. 

Even though we often rely on trusted doctors to give us recommendations for good health, nature involvement is easy to develop and implement ourselves. There are many elements of nature to choose from and many ways to enjoy the natural environment and the benefits that come from that connection. We know instinctively and from previous experiences that we feel better, more peaceful, and physically stronger when we spend time in nature. Now we have enough scientific evidence that gives us even more compelling reasons to go outside, use what is there for us, and make sensible choices to heal and thrive.

Scientific reasons for connecting to nature: 

  • Relief from mental problems especially anxiety, depression, bad moods, and low self-esteem.

  • Improved brain function including better short-term memory, less brain fog, better concentration, and improved brainpower.

  • Relief from stress and symptoms such as muscle tension or pain, shortness of breath, chest pain or tightness, sleep problems, and fatigue. 

  • Vision protection, particularly preventing and improving nearsightedness (myopia).

  • Reduced inflammation for preventing and managing cancer, autoimmune conditions, and heart disease.

  • Stronger immune system to defend and recover from seasonal illnesses, surgeries, and unexpected infections.

  • Slower aging process and extended life expectancy.

  • Normalized blood pressure and improved blood flow.

  • Sounder sleep and more balanced serotonin, cortisol, and melatonin levels.

  • More effective management of ADD and ADHD and relief from such symptoms.

  • Improved energy levels, increased productivity, greater progress in achieving personal and professional goals.

Ways to engage with nature:

  • Getting grounded by walking barefoot on the ground that serves as a conductor (grass, sand, concrete) between earth and the human body (for more info, please read my blog Getting grounded; literally!)

  • Hugging a tree, touching any parts of the tree, or taking a moment to sit peacefully underneath.

  • Gardening and establishing a nurturing relationship with plants while enjoying the beauty and benefits from growing them.

  • Eating fresh organic food, buying food at the farmer's markets and directly from farmers and people who provide us with healthy natural food.

  • Observing (from a safe distance) animals and other outdoor creatures (birds, butterflies, bees, bunnies, squirrels), how they play, hunt for food, and engage with nature.

  • Finding outdoor places for stillness and silence (meditation) to hear and better understand nature, such as ocean sounds, birds singing, bees buzzing, the wind blowing.

  • Incorporating the healing elements of the sun through safe and thoughtful exposure (using appropriate sun protection).

  • Exercising outdoors: walking, jogging, biking, hiking, yoga, tai chi, swimming, winter sports.

  • Moon “bathing” from any place on earth by getting outside in the evening and letting the moonlight wash over our bodies.

Being outdoors has many benefits and it is easy to do during warm and long summer days, but what can we do in winter or on days when we don’t have time or energy to get outside?

Ideas to connect with nature without going outside:

  • Finding a window at home or a workplace that has a view of a natural environment and developing a healthy habit to glance outside throughout the day.

  • Investing in house plants; watering them and watching them grow and bloom.

  • Planting herbs in pots to enjoy them all year round for cooking and fresh aroma.

  • Visualizing natural places that feel close to our hearts and relax our bodies (beaches, forests, mountain trails, campgrounds, flower gardens).

  • Listening to nature sound recordings such as the ocean, wind, rain, thunder, birds singing.

  • Having a house pet to experience the connection with nature through learning about, caring for, and being available to another gift of nature.

  • Getting seasonal fresh flowers to enjoy them in the living areas, kitchens, or bedrooms.

  • Connecting to other human beings with an understanding that we all represent nature and have privilege and obligation to take care of our natural environment and each other.

Exploring the therapeutic power of nature can be a fun and rewarding journey to better health, self-discovery, and fulfilling understanding of the world around us. There are many ways to do it, but in reality, it is as simple as this; LOVE NATURE AND SHE WILL LOVE YOU BACK!