Explore the integrative role of nature in naturopathic medicine, emphasizing its impact on physical and mental health, and the importance of connecting with nature for holistic well-being.
What do naturopathic doctors mean by the healing power of nature?
Naturopathic doctors follow six guiding principles that serve as a philosophical platform for everything they do. The principles influence how they think about medicine, how they make clinical decisions, and most importantly, how they treat you as a patient. Each principle plays a role in guiding naturopathic doctors in diagnosis and treatment. The healing power of nature is one of these six core principles.
- The healing power of nature recognizes the body’s inherent ability to heal itself.
- The building blocks of your body—cells—are dynamic, living units that are constantly working to self-repair and regenerate.
- The body’s organs and systems work hard on their own to support recovery from injury and illness.
- Certain genetic, environmental, and behavioral/lifestyle factors can slow or prevent optimal healing and recovery.
- NDs focus on identifying and removing obstacles to recovery, in order to facilitate the natural healing ability in their patients.
The healing power of nature recognizes the body’s inherent ability to heal itself. This begins at the cellular level. The building blocks of your body—cells—are dynamic, living units that are constantly working to self-repair and regenerate.18
For example, when your skin is cut or scraped, you start to bleed. Your blood platelets clump together and clot to protect the wound. Blood vessels allow fresh nutrients and oxygen into the wound for healing. White blood cells accumulate on the site of the wound to protect it from infection, and red blood cells arrive to build new tissue.2 This remarkable process stops when healing is complete.
Self-healing extends beyond the skin level. The body works hard on its own to support recovery from injury and illness. Damaged, destroyed, or dead cells are replaced daily and automatically in your major organ systems. When you have a virus, your immune system attacks it. The digestive system consistently replaces old cells that line the gastrointestinal tract with newer ones. When you break a bone, bone cells kick into action to grow back together.
Naturopathic therapies support and enhance the natural healing power of the body.
But certain genetic, environmental, and behavioral/lifestyle factors can slow or prevent optimal healing and recovery. These factors, unique to each individual, get in the way of the body’s inherent ability to heal. Naturopathic doctors focus on identifying and removing obstacles to recovery, in order to facilitate the natural healing ability in patients.
For example, food sensitivities or intolerances, unmanaged emotional stress, insufficient physical activity, and an imbalanced lipid profile are just a few examples of barriers to optimal healing that naturopathic doctors are trained to identify and treat. Naturopathic doctors often spend between one and two hours with patients in an initial appointment to uncover individual hurdles to optimal health.
The Therapeutic Order
Naturopathic doctors utilize the Therapeutic Order20, a natural order of therapeutic intervention used to help discover and evaluate multiple obstacles to healing, as a framework for diagnosis and treatment. These guidelines are aimed at supporting the body’s health restoring and maintenance processes, as opposed to just reducing symptoms. Naturopathic doctors view symptoms as nature’s attempt to correct imbalances. Consequently, naturopathic treatments are geared toward allowing the body to heal rather than suppressing symptoms, which can lead to a prolongation of the disease.
Naturopathic doctors individualize and prioritize natural, minimally invasive therapies. They are also trained to use pharmacological drugs when necessary. If state license permits, an ND can prescribe medication as a bridge to manage symptoms until the body repairs itself. If not, they will refer patients to a conventional medical colleague.
In focusing on the healing power of nature, naturopathic doctors empower patients both to understand the role their body plays in healing itself, and to engage actively in restoring and maintaining their own health. This kind of empowerment in health care can lead to better outcomes and lowered healthcare costs.21
It seems so obvious that we often forget it: being out in nature is really good for us! From the warm sun on our skin at the beach to the relaxing cool air of a forest walk, getting out into nature is an important component of a healthy lifestyle. So many people are busy with work or school or taking care of things at home that they don’t think about how healing the natural world around them can actually be. But there is a lot of evidence to support the idea that being outside should be included in a regular health maintenance plan.
The health benefits of spending time in nature are substantial. Some of these benefits relate to our physical health, as shown in studies demonstrating time outside has direct impacts on health measures such as blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels.18, 19
A large part of these benefits has to do with the physical activities that happen in green spaces, such as walking, hiking, team sports, and more.
We know that the closer people live to a green space like a park, the more likely they are to be physically active and healthier.
Han B, Cohen DA, Derose KP, Marsh T, Williamson S, Raaen L. How much neighborhood parks contribute to local residents’ physical activity in the City of Los Angeles: A meta-analysis. Prev Med (Baltim).
However, studies also show that these health benefits exist even when adjusting for the positive effects of exercise. This means having access to nearby green space is important for people to be physically active, but there are additional reasons why spending time in nature is good for our health.
One of the most studied reasons for a time in nature benefit is its impact on stress. As anyone who has ever ended a busy day with a long walk knows, escaping to a natural setting can be very therapeutic. The sights, sounds, and smells of nature produce an automatic relaxing effect on both body and mind. This influences blood pressure and heart rate, as well as hormonal biomarkers of stress like salivary cortisol and the biofeedback measure known as heart rate variability that ultimately impact blood sugar and cholesterol.1 Multiple studies have shown that spending time in nature significantly reduces these measures of stress to a degree that may actually be saving people’s lives.5,6
Of course, stress doesn’t just influence our physical health, but also our mental health. Time in and around nature is an excellent remedy for stress.
This is in contrast to emerging evidence about the modern digital screen which evidence shows has the opposite effect especially in children.7
Getting outside on a regular basis can also significantly improve concentration, memory, and attention, and reduces symptoms of ADHD.8,9 In addition, being in nature results in significant improvements in mood, both increasing positive emotions like happiness and joy and decreasing negative moods and depression.10–12 Spending time outside can be a great boost to mental health and overall mental well-being in both adults and children.13,14
All of these physical and mental benefits of connecting with nature are thought to be the result of evolutionary adaptations that our species developed by living in a 100% natural environment for millions of years. This theory of “Biophilia” suggests that our prehistoric ancestors evolved with an inherent affinity for the natural world because that was the environment available to them,15 similar to the rationale for the popular Paleolithic (“Paleo”) diet.
Essentially, our prehistoric ancestors were on an extended camping trip, and over time they evolved with that environment to appreciate it as “home” in mind and body. And though we may be millennia away from their “survival of the fittest” lifestyle, our default psychological and physiological responses and baseline are still set to those natural settings. This is the reason that walking in the forest or sitting around a campfire can feel so therapeutic. These experiences nourish a core experience that has been ingrained into our species for a long time.
Nature Deficient Disorder and Vitamin N
These inherent responses to nature are so much a part of our collective history that we begin to suffer when we don’t have them. At least, this is the thinking of people like the author Richard Louv, who has developed the concept of “Nature Deficit Disorder” to describe the set of physical and mental diseases commonly associated with lack of outdoor time.16 Louv has also suggested that exposure to nature is so fundamental to the human experience that it should be considered a vital nutrient, “Vitamin N,” that human beings need regularly for optimal health. Many people can certainly vouch for the beneficial properties of Vitamin N for themselves when noticing how good they feel sitting on a beach or just stepping outside after a long day in the office.
After spending an hour outdoors interacting with nature, memory performance and attention spans improved by 20%.
Gernes R, Hertzberg R, MacDonell M, et al. Estimating Greenspace Exposure and Benefits for Cumulative Risk Assessment Applications and Gascon M, Triguero-Mas M, Martínez D, et al. Residential green spaces and mortality: A systematic review.
Nature and Health Programs
These healing properties of Nature have been noticed and incorporated in healthcare systems around the world. In Japan, there are designated Forest Therapy Centers, co-funded by the Ministries of Forestry and Health, where people can go to participate in the restorative practice of “forest air bathing”(shinrinyoku). This experience has demonstrated all of the health benefits mentioned above, as well as a measured increase in immune system function due to the presence of aromatherapeutic chemicals produced by the trees. 17 Meanwhile, just as this article was being written, a piece was posted about hospitals in Norway that have built recovery rooms in the deep forest, so that patients can reduce their stress and relax in a natural, non-medical setting. In the US, hospitals like the Legacy Health system in Portland, Oregon are incorporating therapeutic horticulture gardens onsite for the benefit of patients, families, and staff. And in Bethesda, Maryland the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center has set aside 2 acres of woodland for veterans suffering from PTSD and other injuries to recover and heal. All these programs show the interest within the medical community to begin to utilize the healing powers of being in nature.
Of course, there doesn’t need to be a program or prescription to get out and enjoy these benefits. Any opportunity to step away from a digital screen, get outside and let nature work her magic is a good one. This is an important idea to include in a healing regimen for any of the health conditions mentioned above (and more!) It also works as part of a regular health maintenance plan to increase wellness and prevent disease before it begins. It is not only going to feel good but will be making substantial benefits to your health in mind and body. So get outside as much as you can, you’ll be glad you did!
- Twohig-bennett C, Jones A. The health benefits of the great outdoors: A systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes. Environ Res. 2018;166(June):628-637. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2018.06.030
- Ideno Y, Hayashi K, Abe Y, et al. Blood pressure-lowering effect of Shinrin-yoku (Forest bathing): a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2017;17(1):409. doi:10.1186/s12906-017-1912-z
- Han B, Cohen DA, Derose KP, Marsh T, Williamson S, Raaen L. How much neighborhood parks contribute to local residents’ physical activity in the City of Los Angeles: A meta-analysis. Prev Med (Baltim). 2014;69:S106-S110. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2014.08.033
- Thompson Coon J, Boddy K, Stein K, Whear R, Barton J, Depledge MH. Does participating in physical activity in outdoor natural environments have a greater effect on physical and mental wellneing than physical activity outdoors? A systemic review. Environ Sci Technol. 2011;45:1761-1772. doi:10.1021/es102947t
- Gernes R, Hertzberg R, MacDonell M, et al. Estimating Greenspace Exposure and Benefits for Cumulative Risk Assessment Applications (Summary Report). 2016;(May 2015).
- Gascon M, Triguero-Mas M, Martínez D, et al. Residential green spaces and mortality: A systematic review. Environ Int. 2016;86:60-67. doi:10.1016/J.ENVINT.2015.10.013
- Domingues-Montanari S. Clinical and psychological effects of excessive screen time on children. J Paediatr Child Health. 2017;53(4):333-338. doi:10.1111/jpc.13462
- Stevenson MP, Schilhab T, Bentsen P. Attention Restoration Theory II: a systematic review to clarify attention processes affected by exposure to natural environments. J Toxicol Environ Heal – Part B Crit Rev. 2018;21(4). doi:10.1080/10937404.2018.1505571
- Faber Taylor A, Kuo FEM. Could exposure to everyday green spaces help treat adhd? Evidence from children’s play settings. Appl Psychol Heal Well-Being. 2011;3(3):281-303. doi:10.1111/j.1758-0854.2011.01052.x
- Capaldi CA, Dopko RL, Zelenski JM. The relationship between nature connectedness and happiness: A meta-analysis. Front Psychol. 2014;5(AUG):1-15. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00976
- McMahan EA, Estes D. The effect of contact with natural environments on positive and negative affect: A meta-analysis. J Posit Psychol. 2015;9760(December):1-13. doi:10.1080/17439760.2014.994224
- Lee I, Choi H, Bang KS, Kim S, Song MK, Lee B. Effects of forest therapy on depressive symptoms among adults: A systematic review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017;14(3). doi:10.3390/ijerph14030321
- Houlden V, Weich S, de Albuquerque JP, Jarvis S, Rees K. The relationship between greenspace and the mental wellbeing of adults: A systematic review. PLoS One. 2018;13(9). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0203000
- Vanaken G-J, Danckaerts M. Impact of Green Space Exposure on Children’s and Adolescents’ Mental Health: A Systematic Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018;15(12):2668. doi:10.3390/ijerph15122668
- Wilson EO. Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; 1984.
- Louv R. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Press; 2005.
- Hansen MM, Jones R, Tocchini K. Shinrin-yoku (Forest bathing) and nature therapy: A state-of-the-art review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017;14(8). doi:10.3390/ijerph14080851
- https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=134&C ontentID=143
- https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273634914_A_Hierarchy_of_Healing_The _Therapeutic_Order_A_Unifying_theory_of_Naturopathic_Medicine 4 Health Policy Brief: Patient engagement. Health Affairs. February 14, 2013. Accessed October 17, 2017