Humans have an intrinsic connection to nature that causes our bodies to react positively when exposed to natural elements. Our last post in this series explained some of the most interesting physiological human reactions to nature. But how can this knowledge be used to change the face of medical therapy? A few current uses are paving the way for a promising future of medical care tied into our intrinsic reactions to the natural environment.
Shinrin-yoku, the ancient Japanese practice of “forest bathing” is garnering a renewed interest within the medical community in Asia. Why? Through a series of studies on the interactions between trees and our bodies, researchers have found that exposure to compounds and fragrances emitted from trees can improve your health on several levels. Japanese culture has long regarded the practice as a way to maintain peace of mind, but now medical professionals are asking if the therapy can compete with modern medicines as preventative care.
After years of investigation, significant findings point to the fact that stress levels can benefit from forest bathing. Studies indicate that individuals who sit in wooded areas for a certain amount of time have significantly lower levels of hemoglobin in the left prefrontal area of the brain, indicating calmer brain activity, as well as decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva. This is part of mounting proof that nature has significantly positive effects on our physical state that can revolutionize healthcare, as we better understand the applications of biophilia.
A team at the Nippon School of Medicine in Tokyo is also exploring how forest bathing affects our immune systems. They have isolated what they call the “natural killer” cell within the body, which prevents the growth of tumors that leads to various forms of cancer. Breathing in Phytoncides and other organic compounds off-gassed from trees increase the number of cancer-fighting cells by as much as 8%. In female subjects, increased white blood cell counts were recorded for up to one week after a forest-bathing session. Since the 1980’s, the Japanese Government has advocated Shinrin-yoku as a form of therapy, and 40 therapy sites exist throughout country to promote forest bathing as a healthy lifestyle choice.
Other biophilia-based care such as horticultural therapy has been found to increase productive engagement from Alzheimer’s patients by nearly 50% compared to conventional methods.
A 2003 study identified nature as a mechanism that buffers children from life’s stress and adversity. The study found that children in rural areas located near or beside wooded areas experience less stress during periods of tension, anxiety and strain.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne has studied how nature affects high-risk youth in inner city Chicago. They found that the presence of green space in public housing developments increases teenage girls’ ability to concentrate, control their initial impulses, and delay gratification. The enhancement of self-control could improve performance in school, reduce the risk of unplanned pregnancies, and increase the chances that the subjects will finish school and acquire skills valuable to the marketplace (Faber et al. 2001). Other findings concluded that a direct connection to natural in a public housing unit in Chicago decreased the average incidences of overall domestic violence and aggression low-income households by 25%.
These widely documented phenomena have given way to a program in San Diego County, California, called the Urban Corps, a program coupling young adults who have a high school education with job training in the fields of conservation and recycling. The program includes voyages into the woods, led by ecologists, in which the participants learn about native and invasive species, and develop forest management skills. Their program has graduated more than 60 people since its opening in 2010, and its participants have planted more than 2000 trees.
Biophilia has a long way to go before it will be accepted as an equal option for medical treatment. Yet a growing body of research and results is making many professionals take notice. As research continues to bolster the validity of nature as an integrated part of mainstream medical regimes, we can look forward to more holistic forms of therapy.