Can nature medicine ever replace prescriptions or supplements?

Nature can be a powerful healer, offering mood-boosting benefits and proven stress reduction. But could it be prescribed to replace your prescription medicine or supplements?

Researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) recently investigated the impact of nature prescriptions on health, highlighting the potential benefits of spending time outdoors to improve both physical and mental wellbeing.

The science of nature prescriptions

A review and analysis of 28 studies, led by the co-directors of the Population Wellbeing and Environment Research Lab (PowerLab), Professor Xiaoqi Feng and Professor Thomas Astell-Burt, examined the effectiveness of nature prescriptions in real-world patients.

The study, published in The Lancet Planetary Health, showed how nature prescriptions resulted in reduced blood pressure, lower depression and anxiety scores, and higher daily step counts. As Prof. Feng suggests, the challenge now is in determining how to implement nature prescriptions effectively for those who stand to benefit the most.

“The evidence shows that nature prescriptions can help to restore and build capacities for better physical and mental health,” said Prof. Feng. “What we need now is to work out how to make nature prescriptions happen in a sustained way for those people with high potential to benefit, but who currently spend little time in nature.”

Is nature good for your brain?

Nature is not only good for mental health, but it also has a positive impact on the brain, says the study. Exposure to green spaces reduces the harms caused by poor air quality, heatwaves and chronic stress. Furthermore, being in nature encourages healthy behaviours such as socialising and physical activity. This may help prevent issues such as loneliness, depression and heart disease.

Why does nature improve mood?

The mood-boosting benefits of nature are well documented. A Stanford University study found that participants who walked in nature experienced less anxiety, worry and negative emotions compared to those who walked in an urban environment. The study suggests that exposure to natural environments, fresh air and sunlight reduce stress and improve emotional wellbeing.

The mood-enhancing effects of nature may also be partly attributed to the reprieve from our busy lives and the constant barrage of digital stimuli.

Prof. Heng also says nature encourages healthy behaviours such as socialising and physical activity, which go a long way to preventing loneliness, depression and cardiovascular disease.

“This study is built on a long-term program of research that we are doing, where we show contact with nature – and trees especially – is really good for strengthening mental and physical health across our lives,” said Prof. Feng.

“But even if you have a high-quality green space like a park nearby, it doesn’t mean that everyone will visit and benefit from it.

“How can we encourage and enable people to (re)connect with nature? That’s where the idea of a nature prescription comes in.”

How does nature relieve stress?

A Japanese study found that ‘forest bathing’ can lower cortisol levels, heart rate and blood pressure. The study attributes these stress-relieving effects to the calming influence of the natural environment, as well as the presence of phytoncides, naturally occurring chemicals emitted by trees that may have a calming effect on the human body.

Are there any other benefits of being in nature?

  1. Boosted immune function. Exposure to nature and the great outdoors can lead to an increase in natural killer cells. These play a vital role in our immune system.
  2. Improved sleep. Spending time outdoors – around 30 minutes a day in natural light – can help regulate our circadian rhythms, leading to better sleep quality.
  3. Reduced inflammation. Studies have shown that spending time in nature can help reduce inflammation in the body, which is linked to numerous chronic diseases.
  4. Enhanced creativity. Spending time in nature can help stimulate creative thinking and problem-solving abilities.
  5. Increased physical activity. Being in nature encourages physical activity, which is essential for maintaining overall health and wellbeing.

The million-dollar question: Can nature ever replace some medicines or supplements?

The UNSW study does not suggest that nature can replace medical treatment or supplementation for existing health conditions. It may, however, complement traditional therapies and serve as a preventive measure for certain health issues. For example, research has shown that exposure to nature can help alleviate many symptoms and medical issues. In some cases, spending time in nature may be a valuable adjunct therapy to complement conventional treatments and medications.

“The range of specific health outcomes tied to nature is startling, including depression and anxiety disorder, diabetes mellitus, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), various infectious diseases, cancer, healing from surgery, obesity, birth outcomes, cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal complaints, migraines, respiratory disease, and others,” Associate Professor of natural resources and environmental sciences Ming Kuo told Frontiers.

“Neighbourhood greenness has been consistently tied to life expectancy and all-cause mortality.

“These findings raise the possibility that such contact is a major health determinant, and that greening may constitute a powerful, inexpensive public health intervention.”

Moreover, nature prescriptions are gaining popularity as a supplement to standard medical care. The UK government has invested millions in a pilot program for green social prescribing. Canada also has a national nature prescription program.

Australians are showing increased interest in nature prescriptions. A recent survey of Australian adults showed that over 80 per cent of respondents were receptive to the idea.

Still, there are no large-scale nature prescription programs in Australia. Prof. Heng says more research is needed to understand how nature prescriptions could be implemented in our local context.

“How long should the nature prescription be for? What should be in the prescription? How should we deliver it, and by whom? These questions don’t have firm answers yet,” said Prof. Feng.

“If we want nature prescriptions to become a national scheme, we really need to provide the evidence.”

A growing body of scientific evidence shows nature’s positive impact on mental and physical health is undeniable.

As we continue to explore the healing power of nature, it is crucial to recognise the importance of nature. It is increasingly essential to develop strategies for incorporating nature-based interventions into healthcare and wellness programs.

By understanding the role of nature in improving mental health, reducing stress and enhancing overall wellbeing, we can work towards creating a healthier society that values and prioritises access to natural environments for all individuals.

“It’s important for nature prescriptions to be accessible to all Australians,” says Prof. Heng.

“We don’t want nature prescriptions to be a luxury item for the rich who already have access to beaches and a lot of high-quality green space. We want these benefits for everyone.”

How much time do you spend in nature? Does reading this make you want to spend more time outdoors? What stops you from doing so? Do you have any tips for our members that might help them get outdoors more often? Why not share them in the comments section below?

Also read: What is forest bathing? All about the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not ‘advice’ because it does not consider your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. For health advice, always consult your medical practitioner.

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