The Healing Power of Nature

Autumn-LeafI go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

– John Burroughs

I confess I am a nature-lover/tree-hugger/environmentalist – whatever you want to call someone who loves to be in nature. Nature is healing for me, as it has been for so many others throughout time. Now there is research that validates this, and raises questions whether the lack of exposure to nature could aggravate or even cause certain conditions such as ADHD. Do we need nature for our bodies as well as our souls?

Nature Heals and Restores

In 1984, Science magazine published a landmark article by Roger Ulrich showing strong evidence that nature promotes healing. Patients hospitalized in rooms with a view of nature had shorter hospital stays and used less pain medication.

For people with chronic conditions who reside in restricted environments, simple exposure to a garden dramatically decreases anxiety, agitation, and social withdrawal. For patients who can enter into natural spaces and gardens, the amount of psychiatric drugs decreases. According to Clare Cooper Marcus, (UC Berkeley), being in nature puts the mind in a meditative state: we stop obsessing and worrying and start living in the present moment, which in turn decreases stress, improves hypertension, and increases immune function.

We are influenced by our environment in more ways than we are aware. Research from Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester shows that paying attention to nature can affect social values and actions — exposure to a natural environment leads people to value community and close relationships.

When in nature, you may experience these benefits, too:

  • Exposure to Vitamin D (via sunshine) which is necessary for optimum bone, brain, and immunity health).
  • Increased activity: you tend to move around more when outside and you get more benefits from outdoor exercise.
  • Natural light during the day and darkness at night helps to maintain our natural circadian rhythms. Lack of natural light and dark interferes with sleep, energy, and moods.
  • Vision: Our ancestors who looked often at the horizon lacked the deficits we have today so more of us need corrective lenses.
  • Hearing: Our ears were once used to detect changes in the complex acoustical patterns of nature, such as forests, running water, rain, and wind. Noise pollution negatively affects our emotions, nervous system, and physiology.

Ecopsychology

Ecopsychology is a new field of study that asks, “If exposure to nature is beneficial, what happens when we withdraw from it?”

Richard Louv identified Nature Deficit Disorder in his popular book Last Child in the Woods, asserting that children are spending less time outdoors which results in a wide range of behavioral problems. Nancy Wells found that being close to nature improves a child’s attention span, and research by University of Illinois shows that children in a greener setting experience more relief from ADHD symptoms.

To improve your and your family’s exposure to nature:

  • Set up study areas in rooms with a view of nature.
  • Encourage outdoor play in green spaces and advocate for green school yards. Outdoor play at recess renews concentration.
  • Plant or take care of trees and vegetation in your area.

By losing connection to nature we lose ability to restore ourselves.

The loss of natural space is becoming a public health issue, yet we are less aware of the disappearance of green spaces around us. To improve the “nature” of your life:

  • Incorporate green spaces in the design of your home, workspace, and school.
  • Prescribe “Green Time” as a self-therapy.
  • Create a habit to go outside every day.
  • Learn to recognize your local wildlife.
  • Create access to green spaces for those around you, especially for the very young and for seniors.
  • Brighten the day by placing a plant in any room that lacks a view.

Nature’s Rhythms

For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck what is planted. God has made everything beautiful in its time.

– Ecclesiastes

For thousands of years, we have honored nature’s rhythms. We planted our crops according to the seasons and the phases of the moon. We ate and slept with the rising and setting of the sun. But modern life with its conveniences has severed this connection. We now use artificial light to work late and an alarm to wake us up on schedule. Our bodies lose the natural cycles of fasting, purification, and restoration. We eat the same foods year round so we no longer know the peak season for fruits and vegetables.

Chronobiology is the study of patterns and rhythms that repeat themselves. Until recently, medicine paid very little attention to the seasonality or rhythm of disease. Timing is now becoming important in the overall maintenance of health, and especially so in the detection, treatment, and prevention of disease.

The Wall Street Journal recently featured ways in which biorhythms are being studied in the diagnosis of autism, epilepsy, schizophrenia, and dementia. In autistic children, researchers were able to differentiate characteristic brain wave patterns in the language centers with 90% accuracy.

The body’s physiologic rhythms work on different time scales and often interact with each other. A rhythm gone awry can indicate disease. One body rhythm out of sync can impact another, creating pervasive illness. Consider these types of rhythms:

  • Cellular rhythms: Biochemical rhythms that oscillate throughout the day, prompting electrically excitable cells in neurons to activate and rest.
  • Ultra-rhythms: Our cycles that repeat throughout a day, such as heartbeat, breathing, and our hormonal system. Heart attacks occur more often in the early morning when there is a peak in stress hormones. Asthma is most common at night when the stress hormone cortisol decreases.
  • Circadian rhythms: Our sleeping and waking cycle. The body’s 24-hour cycle affects sleep, body weight, and fertility.
  • Ciralunar cycles: Our monthly cycles. A women’s immunity is lowest during menses and highest during ovulation.
  • Cirannual cycles: The seasonal influence on our human experience. Testicular cancer is more common in the winter as is breast cancer in women with low melatonin due to increased darkness.

Over a thousand biological rhythms control the human body. Each biological timer dictates a specific rhythm to a group of cells, organ, or endocrine gland. Our individual body clocks may be linked to a common master clock that is in turn controlled by the sun and movements of earth. When kept in total darkness, animals and plants are able to maintain this rhythm for a period of time but then gradually shift out of sync.

Chronotherapy considers how the body’s rhythms impact its ability to process medications. Every drug has an optimal time when it is the least toxic and most effective. According to Franz Halberg, chronobiologist, “One of the big mistakes that’s made is to believe that we can treat by clock hours. We have to treat by body times.”

For cancer treatment, these should be consideration: the drug being administered, the timing when the patient’s cancer cells divide the most (and are the most vulnerable), when the healthy cells divide the least, and the patient’s rest and activity cycles. Chemotherapy is more effective when taking all factors into consideration.

Most living creatures have adapted to the temporal order of their environment so they carry out bodily functions at the best time. Although humans also evolved with this natural music, we fool ourselves in believing we can move beyond our biology. Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine honor these transitions. In western medicine, understanding that the seasons and geography impact health help physicians tailor prevention and treatment so patients can live in sync with their biology and environment.

The Bitter Truth

We have all heard that too much sugar is bad for us. While sugar is clearly a villain, the lack of bitter in our diet also impacts our health.

Instinctively we don’t like the taste of bitter. During experiments in which sweet and bitter tastes were introduced to infants in utero, babies instinctively sucked the sugar stimulus but puckered up at a bitter one. This response exists because poisonous plants are often bitter so when infants or toddlers put them into their mouths, they instinctively spit them out.

The human response to less severely bitter food is more varied. In the US, about 25% of the population enjoy and seek out bitter food, 50% can tolerate it, and 25% find the flavor unpleasant. Those who are highly sensitive to bitter are more likely to dislike green tea, soy, white grapefruit, and coffee (or drink it with sugar). The response to bitter flavors is influenced by many factors, such as culture, genetics, and childhood diet. In general, Americans are more adverse to bitter flavors than other cultures.

Bitter is present in nearly all plants. It signals our bodies to eat less and it activates our detoxification systems — in this way bitters act as a daily workout for our livers. There are over 20 different subtypes of bitter taste receptors which detect over 100 unrelated compounds. These bitter taste receptors are not just confined to the tongue and mouth but are also found in the lungs and brain. To make the most of bitters, we need to taste them as well as smell them.

The diversity of plants we eat has dropped with industrialization and urbanization. Where once we more connected to the land and harvesting our own wild bitters — dandelion greens, chicory, wild arugula – we have now replaced them with an extra serving of carbohydrates.

The aversion to bitter has led us to select the sweetest fruits and vegetables in order to make them more palatable. Our cultivated fruits and vegetables are very different from their wild ancestors which were much bitterer and packed many more nutrients. By removing bitterness, we have greatly reduced the amount of beneficial phytonutrients in foods. Bitter greens, such as dandelion and chicory, have significantly more phytonutrients and calcium than romaine or iceberg lettuce.

We blame so many of our current health concerns on the rise of sugar that we miss that we have eliminated much of what was bitter and wild in our food. Part of improving our health is hiding in unwanted plants – bitter, weedy roots, and greens. We need to reactivate our bitter taste receptors.

Here’s how:

  • Eat digestive bitters.
  • Include bitter greens and foods in your diet.
  • Reduce sweet and starchy foods.

Herbalists, Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese medicine often use bitters in their remedies. You may recognize the vestiges of old practices today in cocktails such as Compari and Angostura. Many aperitifs, such as Fernet Branca and Averna, are bitters.

Work more bitters into your diet. It just may be that a spoonful of bitter helps the sugar go down!

Want more information? Robert Lustig’s Sugar: The Bitter Truth