The Why Files The Why Files --

Natural Healing

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.

Men and women at rest and play in the green spaces of Central Park, New York
Is being in a park healthy, not just enjoyable? Photo: New York City Department of Parks and Recreation

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).

Tree covered land mass juts out into large lake
Picnic Point, extending into Lake Mendota, is a favorite location for urban nature walks in Madison, Wis. 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.

Young man sits before a doctor in an examination room
Stressful sight: The doc's place is a stressful place, and that is reflected in elevated 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.

Light pours through windows onto leafy green plants in a room with tiled floors and wooden benches
Do beautiful hospital gardens and atriums have a medical benefit? A study at a children's cancer hospital suggested that gardens reduce pain, worry and sadness, although the effects were not statistically significant (see #1 in the bibliography). Even though the gardens were designed for children, only 5 percent of the users were patients. 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

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