Cyndi Gilbert, B.A. (Hons), N.D.



Phone: 416.817.2385


The Healing Power of Nature

forest bathingA cou­ple of weeks ago, I pre­sented at the Ontario Forestry Asso­ci­a­tion’s Annual Con­fer­ence. This year’s theme was “Pre­scrip­tion for Nature: Healthy Forests for Healthy Peo­ple”. It was an inspir­ing con­fer­ence, with great speak­ers from the Back to Nature Net­work, Tree Canada, and the Kinark Out­door Cen­tre amongst oth­ers. I was asked to speak from a clin­i­cal per­spec­tive about the rela­tion­ship between forests and human health, a topic I am very pas­sion­ate about, as it speaks to the vis med­ica­trix nat­u­rae, or the heal­ing power of nature. It was also a plea­sure to present to a dif­fer­ent audi­ence than the usual natur­o­pathic stu­dents I lec­ture to on a weekly basis.

A defin­ing prin­ci­ple of natur­o­pathic med­i­cine is the notion of the vis med­ica­trix nat­u­rae. This vital­is­tic con­cept, which dates back to Hip­pocrates, argues that there is an inher­ent and ordered ten­dency in nature towards bal­ance, home­o­dy­namism, and thus the restora­tion of health — health of the indi­vid­ual, health of the ecosys­tem, and health of the planet. Implicit in this idea, is that there is a self-organizing and self-healing force that exists both within indi­vid­ual liv­ing things but also between them, where the whole sys­tem is greater than the sum of its parts and the vis is under­stood to be an emer­gent prop­erty, increas­ing in com­plex­ity at each level of being.

Pre­sented in some­times very dif­fer­ent words, sim­i­lar core val­ues regard­ing humans’ rela­tion­ship to nature can be seen in cul­tural, spir­i­tual and reli­gious tra­di­tions around the world. This drive toward con­nect­ing with nature has also been described by biol­o­gist Edward O. Wil­son as bio­philia, the idea that an instinc­tive bond exists between humans and other liv­ing sys­tems. We can see it again echoed in the cul­tural prac­tices of friluft­sliv, the Scan­di­na­vian phi­los­o­phy of open air liv­ing, and in shinrin-yoku, Japan­ese for­est bathing.

Intrin­si­cally, most peo­ple know that they feel bet­ter in a nat­ural set­ting, whether that’s in the woods, on the beach, or on a moun­tain­top. That’s why so many peo­ple grav­i­tate to nature to relax and take a break from their daily rou­tine. Even still, many peo­ple find it dif­fi­cult to find the moti­va­tion, time and resources to get out­side. In Richard Louv’s words, many of us are suf­fer­ing from “nature deficit dis­or­der”. Thank­fully, for those who want sci­en­tific evi­dence to prove the impor­tance of tak­ing a walk in the woods, many stud­ies have been con­ducted show­ing how con­tact with nature is ben­e­fi­cial to health, even in the absence of exercise.

In numer­ous stud­ies, for­est bathing resulted in reduc­tions in pulse, blood pres­sure, heart rate vari­abil­ity, and cor­ti­sol lev­els; it increased the num­ber of nat­ural killer cells and other intra­cel­lu­lar anti-cancer activ­ity; and it improved insulin sen­si­tiv­ity, decreased blood glu­cose, and hemo­glo­bin A1C in dia­bet­ics. Even just look­ing at pho­tographs of nat­ural land­scapes cor­re­lated to reduced sen­sa­tion of pain dur­ing painful pro­ce­dures such as biop­sies. In chil­dren, time spent in unstruc­tured nat­ural set­tings has been linked to less severe ADHD (atten­tion deficit hyper­ac­tiv­ity dis­or­der) symp­toms, bet­ter focus and con­cen­tra­tion, improved asthma, increased self-esteem, reduc­tion in near-sightedness, lower risk of obe­sity, decreased fears, and bet­ter social rela­tion­ships with peers. Many of these health ben­e­fits per­sisted for over a week after­wards, sug­gest­ing that even infre­quent time in nature has poten­tially sig­nif­i­cant health benefits.

Some health­care providers and orga­ni­za­tions have looked at the avail­able research and responded by intro­duc­ing “green pre­scrip­tions”, pre­scrib­ing more out­door time in nature as part of an over­all treat­ment plan or well­ness approach. Spend­ing time in nature is some­thing that I often sug­gest to patients in my clin­i­cal prac­tice for loads of dif­fer­ent rea­sons and in many dif­fer­ent ways: walk­ing, hik­ing, bik­ing, con­tem­plat­ing, med­i­tat­ing, gar­den­ing, bird watch­ing, canoe­ing, or just plain being in nature.

While Japan­ese researchers the­o­rize that the essen­tial oils, or phy­ton­cides, in the for­est air are respon­si­ble for many of the health ben­e­fits asso­ci­ated with for­est bathing, I believe that phy­ton­cides (and sun­light and vit­a­min D and oxy­gen…) only tell part of the story. There is some­thing more going on in our time spent out­doors — a sense of ground­ed­ness and inter­con­nect­ed­ness that results from an attune­ment to the rhythm of nature, and an awak­en­ing of the vis med­ica­trix nat­u­rae in each of us.

Although we don’t have all the words or tools to explain our con­nec­tions, we under­stand instinc­tively that our health, from the biopsy­choso­cial to the spir­i­tual, is a reflec­tion of the health of the Earth. If we accept that human health and plan­e­tary health are one, then our moral and social oblig­a­tions to restore a healthy and heal­ing con­nec­tion to our envi­ron­ment become imper­a­tive; they chal­lenge us to rethink many of the ways in which we live, eat, work, and play. In so doing, we can fos­ter and renew a mutu­ally respect­ful rela­tion­ship with nature. As nature heals us, we, in turn, can nur­ture and heal the planet; we can begin to truly appre­ci­ate the heal­ing power of nature.