Add 'Nature as Medicine' to Your Health Prescription
Correcting poor eating habits is among the great health challenges of our time. It is a root cause of death, disability and soaring health care costs and is even linked to diminished military readiness.
Recognizing the growing urgency of the problem, our nation's policymakers are beginning to act in unison. In January 2018, House lawmakers officially joined the "Food is Medicine" movement by creating a bipartisan working group dedicated to finding innovations in nutrition policy aimed at improving health and reducing diet-related health costs.
It is a further example of how the medical community and those formulating policy are reframing how they look at health and wellness. Also being examined is how mindset and social factors influence physical health.
As an example of this changing approach, it was recently reported in STAT News that scientists are now trying to dissect the pieces that make mental health treatments work. They believe that successful treatments can be thought of as a conversation. The brain hears some kind of message, whether it is from a drug or another approach, and the brain responds to alleviate symptoms. Scientists are now trying to listen in on those conversations and "back-translate" them in an effort to figure out how successful treatments actually do work.
In support of such efforts, the nonprofit Wellcome Trust recently announced a $200 million commitment to support more mental health research. The organization hopes the investment will ultimately lead to better treatments for the tens of millions of people across the globe with mental health conditions.
It got me thinking. If food is medicine, then nature certainly is medicine as well, and we ought to do more to recognize it as such.
New research is increasingly demonstrating that we have both a physical and psychological need to be in nature and that disconnection from nature can be bad for our mental health. Australian sustainability professor Glenn Albrecht has even coined the term for it -- "psychoterratic." It describes the psychological trauma caused by a disconnection from nature and is an attempt to create the beginning of a vocabulary to discuss the relationship between mental health and the environment. Currently, there are few concepts in English that address environmentally induced mental distress -- or conversely, environmentally enhanced mental health.
According to one new study by researchers at the University of East Anglia in England that analyzed data from 20 countries including the United States, exposure to nature may increase sleep duration, lower stress and reduce the risk of Type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth and high blood pressure. The findings were published in the journal Environmental Research.
"Spending time in nature certainly makes us feel healthier, but until now the impact on our long-term well-being hasn't been fully understood," lead author Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett from the University of East Anglia's Norwich Medical School told Psych Central. For the study, "green space" was defined as open undeveloped land with natural vegetation as well as urban green spaces, which included urban parks and street greenery. At present, the research is unclear as to what exactly is leading to these health benefits.
Perhaps the most well-known example of the health benefits of exposure to nature is the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, or "forest bathing," first introduced by the Japanese government in 1982. In recent years, Japanese officials have spent nearly $4 million dollars studying the physiological and psychological effects of forest bathing, which means bathing in the forest atmosphere or taking in the forest through our senses -- sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch.