With the weather getting warmer and the days getting longer, there is a natural inclination to spend more time outside. After the cold dark days of winter hibernation it feels good to stand in the Sun, listen to the songbirds, and feel the renewed vitality of the world. It is no coincidence that this is the time of year we celebrate Earth Day, (Saturday, April 22nd) to honor and remember the beautiful complexity of the natural world and our interconnection with all of Life.
As practitioners of natural medicine, we can utilize this relationship with nature to help our patients. There is substantial evidence that our inherent affinity for nature and natural things, known as biophilia, has significant benefits for our physical, mental, emotional, and social health and well-being.1–4 Studies show that contact with natural settings and images, via both brief and continual exposures, can help to lower blood pressure, balance cortisol, improve heart rate variability, regulate brain function, increase immune status, and lengthen telomeres. Similarly, sporadic or repetitious nature exposure has been shown to help reduce stress, improve mood and concentration, increase creativity, imagination and coping skills, and decrease severity of depression and anxiety. Articles often appear about experiences like the healthy mindfulness-in-nature practice of forest air bathing (shinrin-yoku) popular in Japan.
Two other events are occurring this week that can help us as practitioners of natural medicine spread the word about the benefits of getting outside. One is the annual conference of the Children & Nature Network, whose founder Richard Louv popularized the concept of “Nature Deficit Disorder” (NDD) over a decade ago.5 Louv and his collaborators work continuously to reduce the prevalence of NDD and its detrimental effects on childhood and adolescent development, particularly in this era of ubiquitous Screen Time. This group advocates for the conceptual consideration of nature’s healthy benefits as “Vitamin N,” a nutritive experience essential for optimal well-being.
The other event this week related to nature & health is National Park Prescription Day (ParkRx Day, Sunday April 23rd), sponsored by the National Park Service (NPS) and the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA). This event celebrates healthcare professionals who have chosen to incorporate nature as part of their medical practice. Known as “Nature Prescriptions” or “Park Prescriptions” these programs formalize the common recommendations of “go for a walk” or “spend more time outside” into written or typed scripts. Often these programs, in cities like San Francisco, Baltimore, Albuquerque, and Portland, involve the coordination of doctors’ offices and local parks departments, to provide patients with useable information about park features and programs that will work best for them.
In some of these cases, like the ParkRx program in Washington DC, information about the local parks system is available right in a doctors’ EHR. This information, which can be included in the treatment plan and sent to the patient’s portal, includes:
- a map of parks closest to the patients’ home or work
- a summary of the park facilities (with pictures)
- a list of the programs available from the local Parks & Rec Department, and
- a rating of park qualities such as aesthetics, accessibility, and safety.
These programs are too new to have reliable outcome data to know how beneficial they might be at addressing health concerns or reducing rates of disease. But they are very popular programs in every region that they have been implemented. With looming federal budget cuts to the NPS on the horizon, the future of ParkRx Day is in question. However, there is no doubt that the idea of Nature/Park Prescriptions is only going to continue expanding.
So whether you are officially a part of the ParkRx movement, want to help reduce the prevalence of Nature Deficit Disorder, or simply believe that “Every Day is Earth Day,” there are plenty of reasons to advocate for more nature time for your patients. And while you’re at it, remember to get outside and experience some of the “healing power of Nature” for yourself. You’ll be happy that you did.
Naturopathic physicians and students interested in the topics of biophilia and health-in-nature can request to join the ‘Naturopaths for Nature’ Facebook group.
For more information on Dr. Beil, visit http://www.hudsonvalleynaturalhealth.com/.