By Roberta Attanasio
A decade ago, Richard Louv — author of the bestsellers Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle — coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the increasing disconnection between children and the natural world. Such disconnection negatively affects health and spiritual well-being. The concept, which was later extended to adults, provides the basis for a working framework to reshape our lives. Louv argues that by tapping into the restorative powers of nature, we can boost mental acuity and creativity; promote health and wellness; build smarter and more sustainable businesses, communities, and economies; and ultimately strengthen human bonds.
Although results from several studies point out the deleterious health effects of our disconnection with nature, the current focus “is not so much on what is lost when nature experience fades, but on what is gained through more exposure to natural settings, including nearby nature in urban places.” Indeed, research shows that spending time in nature protects against depression, diabetes, obesity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and many more disorders. But, what are the pathways that lead from “exposure to greenness” to improved health? To answer this question, Ming Kuo, Director of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), reviewed hundreds of studies examining nature’s effects on health, and published her findings in the scientific journal Frontiers in Psychology.
Kuo’s findings indicate that nature enhances the functions of the immune system, thus leading to improved health. “Finding that the immune system is a primary pathway provides an answer to the question of ‘how’ nature and the body work in concert to fight disease,” she said in a press release.
“I pulled every bit of the research in this area together that I could find, and was surprised to realize I could trace as many as 21 possible pathways between nature and good health — and even more surprised to realize that all but two of the pathways shared a single common denominator,” Kuo said. She added it was remarkable to see how important a role the immune system plays in every one of the diseases that nature protects against.
One way to understand this relationship between nature, health, and the immune system, Kuo explained in the press release, is that exposure to nature switches the body into “rest and digest” mode, which is the opposite of the “fight or flight” mode. When the body is in “fight or flight” mode, it shuts down everything that is immediately nonessential, including the immune system.
“When we feel completely safe, our body devotes resources to long-term investments that lead to good health outcomes — growing, reproducing, and building the immune system,” Kuo said. “When we are in nature in that relaxed state, and our body knows that it’s safe, it invests resources toward the immune system.”
In the published article, Kuo concludes that the findings can help guide the creation of healthy human habitats, and emphasizes the value of both “wild” nature and “everyday” nature — the views and green spaces where we live. These spaces, or “green oasis”, should be designed to induce feelings of deep relaxation, awe, and vitality, and incorporate trees, soil, and water (preferably moving). The green oases might be an inexpensive, powerful public health intervention especially in areas where health risks are high and landscaping is sparse.