POSTED 19 APRIL 2007
A Spring story: Is nature the natural healer?
Could a walk in the park be good for you? Could looking out a window at a park be good for you? Can nature lower stress and promote healing? For centuries, philosophers, mystics and tree-huggers have talked up the benefits of nature.
But if we could sum up the traditional reaction of mainstream medicine, this might do: A walk in the park won't hurt. But if you want to treat the body, not the mind, you better hustle in for some surgery or some meds.
But the tide changed when some number-crunchers found that nature could feed the bottom line. The watershed year was 1984, when a study of gall-bladder surgery patients showed that those who viewed trees through the window left the hospital a day earlier and used fewer pain meds than patients who "enjoyed" a view of a brick wall (see #2 in the bibliography).
Photo by Jeff Miller, courtesy UW-Madison
You might not think nature would need justification from statistics, but the idea that what's on the other side of the window could influence pain, mood and recovery rate gave nature to a whole new significance in medicine. Scientific studies suggest that nature can help patients in two ways:
Reducing stress in healthy people. Exposure to nature lowers heart rate and blood pressure, two key measures of stress. High blood pressure contributes to strokes and heart attacks, so reducing stress is one way to keep people out of clinics and hospitals in the first place.
Reducing the stress, strain and pain of an encounter with the medical establishment. Such contact can be stressful: Doctors have long discussed the "white-coat" effect: The anxiety and fear aroused by the presence of medical equipment and personnel can raise blood pressure.
Photo by Michael Forster Rothbart, courtesy University of Wisconsin-Madison
In assessing the healing power of nature, we must rule out the benefits of simply changing the subject: children report less pain if they are asked to blow bubbles before an injection (common sense says the kids are simply concentrating on something beside the needle). Another factor that can confound this type of study is exercise, which is healthy if it occurs during a walk in the woods or a trot on the treadmill.
Courtesy Bronson Healthcare Group, Kalamazoo, MI
But some scientists say distraction and exercise by themselves cannot explain all the health benefits to patients who are exposed to nature.
What does the evidence say about nature and healing?
Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive