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Getting Away: Nature immersion therapy's new inroads into personal health management

Updated: Feb 28, 2019

One day as I was en route to a meeting I heard a story on the radio about a woman in the Washington DC area who leads groups of people through a forest at the edge of a lake. The forest trail is near enough to the central DC metro that professionals regularly take a long lunch to be guided through reflective quiet time in nature.

It turns out, one of my organization’s supporters heard the feature too, because I got a text highly recommending that I check out the process of becoming a Nature Therapy Guide. With her gentle reminder, soon I was learning all about why doctors and mental health professionals are increasingly writing ‘nature prescriptions.’ (NB: There’s so much research that instead of putting a long citation list at the end of this article, I just directly linked all the peer-reviewed studies and journal/news articles right where they’re relevant. Eat your heart out, you research wonks!)

Picture your doctor handing these words scrolled in crinkly doctor handwriting on a script pad: “Take a good look at three blades of grass. A good hard look.” This kind of thing is apparently happening across the developed world.

In these modern times with new, advanced buildings, where all needs are met with technology or machinery, people in developed countries are spending much more time indoors. Indoors, the location where most people assume they are safe, actually could be a more dangerous place than we think. Those of us living in urban areas are aware of the unpleasant sights and smells of pollution in city air, but alarmingly, indoor urban air collects pollution at concentrations between 2 and 5 times what we experience outdoors in the city.

Not getting enough sunlight exposure can lead to a whole list of conditions related to vitamin D deficiency, a condition commonly observed in people who sleep during the day. In a recent industrial research study commissioned by VELUX, one in six people admitted to spending less than 15 minutes outside every day. In an age where Americans spend 93% of their time indoors, it is becoming critical for people to learn how to manage the ill-effects of that lifestyle. In these modern times we’re just not outdoor creatures anymore.

Or are we? Increasing awareness is being raised in the medical community about the many biological consequences to spending too much time indoors. Even though we may not act like outdoor creatures anymore, our bodies didn’t get the memo. We may just have to accept the reality of our species’ current state of evolution. Our bodies are what they are.

Those familiar with the historic resiliency of human beings may wonder when the principles of evolution will kick in and cause humans to adjust to our chosen modern lifestyle. Unfortunately, we may not observe that major gene adjustment in our lifetimes, nor in our children’s lifetimes, judging from humanity’s track record. Paleontologists remind us that though the most recent human adaptations have happened faster than ever before in our geologic timeline, those ‘fast’ changes happened over the course of 3,000 years.

It’s just over the past 200 years that people have started occupying the indoors for most of their day. In that comparative blip of time, as we gradually transitioned from farms and forests to factories and offices, humanity’s changing lifestyle has resulted in a gradual change in our species’ overall profile of common health problems. And our species’ official modern medical profile says that we’re stressed.

The medical community has long recognized that chronic stress can be an aggravating factor that increases the severity of many diseases. Some research even indicates that stress can be the primary cause of sickness. A doctor’s task of helping patients reduce stress in their personal lives is a tricky one, since patients are often unaware of the causes of their own chronic stress during initial diagnoses. This makes root causes very difficult to identify.

Luckily, there are adequate hints readily available in the animal kingdom. Human conditions closely related to chronic stress interestingly resemble sicknesses experienced by large mammals in captivity. In zoological studies, rates of survival in captivity are significantly lower than survival rates in natural habitats. That’s why many zoos are considering turning into ‘unzoos,’ using vehicle tours that make a zoo trip resemble a safari, for the benefit of having healthier animals.

But there’s hope! Fortunately, the places where we live and work are getting greener and more natural by design. Cities are investing to locate more nature spaces near residences, and their efforts are paying off. Turning vacant lots into gardens and natural habitat lowers the incidence of depression in residents surrounding the greened lots. In Chicago, inexpensive measures to clean and encourage visitor-friendly nature spots on vacant city lots were linked to a significant reduction in resident conflicts on the blocks amended. Natural areas are showing their value in terms of social and economic improvement.

Now, I don’t want to venture into discussion about whether the modern American is experiencing daily conditions akin to a life in captivity. That concept probably is better addressed separately, but it might serve us well to remember these staggering figures: The self-help industry is a teeming $11 billion industry in the U.S. alone, attempting to help, among others, the 40 million Americans suffering from mental health issues related to anxiety, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorders.

Businesses have joined the medical and self-help industries in the charge to swing the world’s perspective from treatment of problems to prevention of problems. Why? Because that approach saves money.

Anxiety-related conditions may cost American employers over $44 billion per year, but for every dollar that employers spend on treatment of mental illness, four dollars are retained. If employers focus on preventing chronic health conditions and promoting good mental health, the return on investment is even greater. Employer investment in prevention-driven wellness programs results in a 40%-60% improvement in absenteeism and disengagement. For this reason, human resources departments now encourage work-life programs laser-focused on personal prevention measures.

For all of these interconnected reasons, in recent years medical professionals have started showing confidence in treatments which completely immerse patients in nature, especially nature with trees present, to glean observable physiological effects. For decades, physicians have known about the link between natural environments and stress relief. Now it’s becoming clear that nature spaces containing dense trees provide a subtle air quality improvement that has a multiplier effect on visitors’ health.

Human biology is especially well-suited to self-heal using the unique elements emitted into the air by forest ecosystems. Scientists have studied the way that forest emissions affect our respiratory and immune systems. Trees are the largest single-unit oxygen factories available, so it’s no wonder that higher concentrations of oxygen hover around forested areas.

Trees don’t just release oxygen, though. They also release phytoncides, gas-borne molecules that inhibit fungal and bacterial growth. These little antimicrobial gift packages are released in microscopic amounts from trees’ leaf stomata. When you’re in a forest, your parasympathetic nervous system is more effective at working with your immune system, meaning that your body is able to do more for itself.

Nature Therapy is a great answer to the increasing need for low-cost healthcare solutions and the increasing push for whole-patient prevention measures. The therapy technique is a forest-based outpatient procedure that relies on the long well-known human body’s universal preference for a natural environment. The practice is first guided by a certified professional, and then self-administered. Undergoing Nature Therapy generally leads to the improvement of chronic physical conditions and mental illness alike.

Now that I know what I know about the great outdoors and our health, I feel prepared to enter the path of study and personal practice that is required of a Certified Nature Therapy Guide. Stay tuned at the end of 2019, when I will be writing more extensively, guided by a mentor at the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides.

And if you are in the Kansas City area, you may want to try this phenomenon yourself. Come to a Nature Therapy event, where at first we’re partnering with another Nature Therapy Guide. By the end of 2019, if everything goes as planned, Clement Waters will have at least two guides-in-training. We are excited about the prospects of growing this program, and we look forward to seeing its results in people living in Kansas City.

If you would like to support a Nature Therapy Guide's training, please consider contributing the equivalent of one week of the six-month training, $100. We thank you heartily.

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