The Goodness of Green
Some people call me a tree hugger. I’m okay with this because it’s true - I do hug trees, I use them for medicine, and I am healthy and alive in part because of trees!
Trees literally provide us life through the oxygen they give us. I have always appreciated the beauty that green life and the natural realm convey. Having an appreciation for nature directly influenced me into becoming a Naturopathic Doctor and practitioner of Chinese medicine. We can learn so much by observing the natural environment!
While the benefits of green life are real, tangible, and well-researched, I feel people often doubt the power nature can have. Some doubt that a plant can heal them, even just by being in its presence; they doubt that an herbal medicine may impart just as much - or more - benefit as their medication(s), often without side-effects.
The idea that the effects of nature are somehow not as powerful or as important as man-made things is an idea that stems from the Industrial Revolution. Global society is now beginning to see the ugly side effects that this Industrial thinking has caused. Because of this, there is a societal shift back towards respecting nature.
As I write this blog, I’m looking at a beautiful spider plant sitting on a pedestal in my home that was given to me by one of my dear patients. Just being in the presence of this spider plant not only gives me joy, but it also has some profound physiological effects on my body, including lowering my blood pressure.
There is some pretty amazing research that demonstrates that green space is an important factor in various health parameters. Fredrick Law Olmstead, landscape architect of America’s most picturesque parks, appreciated this fact stating: “The occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character...is favorable to the health and vigor of men...the reinvigoration which results from such scenes is readily comprehended.”
A 2001 controlled study of 10,000 people in the Netherlands demonstrated that those with more green space in their living proximity had higher levels of perceived overall health; they judged themselves to be healthier and reported fewer health-related complaints. This study demonstrated that the amount of green space is related to health indicators more strongly than the degree of urbanity.
In fact, a 10% increase in green space was shown to be the equivalent of a 5 year reduction in the average number of health-related symptoms for a person’s age. For example, a 50 year old with 10% more proximal green space has a comparable number of health-related symptoms compared to that of a 45 year old lacking the green space.
In regards to nature in the workplace, a 1996 study by Lohr and colleagues at Washington State University demonstrated that interior plants may improve worker productivity and reduce stress in a windowless environment. Subjects in the study worked on a stressful computer task. Pre- and post-trial measure of attention, blood pressure and task performance were measured. The only variable was the presence or absence of plants. It turns out that blood pressure, attention, and reaction time were all improved by the presence of plants.
One in 4 people have measurable levels of anger/stress at work, which leads to increases in blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, fatigue and immune compromise. This ultimately results in decreased work performance, poor concentration, increased absenteeism, and decreased presenteeism. So, if a few indoor plants can help decrease these levels of stress, isn’t this a worthwhile investment for employers?
Further research shows significant reductions in Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity symptoms in children with increased exposure and access to green space, and reductions in pain symptoms. The increased exposure is also directly linked to the increased likelihood to exercise.
One of my favorite benefits of plants is their capacity to detoxify our air. Another study assessing the effect of plants in the office as it relates to health and symptoms of discomfort among office personnel indicated that plants do have powerful detoxifying and immune supporting effects.
This study demonstrated that symptoms were 23% less when plants were in the office. Respiratory symptoms and fatigue were decreased by 37% and 30%, respectively. Dry/hoarse throat & dry/itching facial skin decreased by 23% each. Plant species used in the study included: Aglaonema commutatum (Chinese Evergreen Plant), Dracaena deremensis (Cornstalk Dracaena), Epipremnum aureum (Golden pothos), and Philodendron scandens (Philodendron).
Many indoor plants filter air by absorbing chemicals such as formaldehyde, benzene, xylene, trichloro-ethylene, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide. The NASA Clean Air Study of 1986 researched ways to clean air in space stations and confirmed these detoxifying effects of common house plants. It is surprising and scary how many of these toxins come from things we consider common place, such as rugs, perfumes, and cosmetics (common household/office toxins will be another topic I blog about). Plants also filter airborne pathogens (Bacteria, Fungi).
So what about the psychological and physiological benefits of plants? There are many proposed theories as to why plants exude such benefits. One suggests that nature has a restorative effect on the mind. Our society expects high performance and in that has designed work environments that are sterile and mundane. These environments don’t allow for the resting of the mind or for any type of distraction from the work at hand… You’d think that this would increase productivity, right? Well, research shows us that this type of environment does not stimulate our minds – constant attention to work is actually fatiguing to our minds! A little nature in the work place gives us the small distraction and rest that our minds need to be even more productive and healthy.
The bottom line is that nature is good for us – it promotes optimal health. Both indoor and outdoor natural environments can reduce stress (both psychosocial and chemical) and can facilitate recovery from stress.
Here at Nova Medical Group, I’ve started an indoor air quality campaign, distributing the babies of the beautiful spider plant that sits in my living room. We are also considering other options like hanging photographs of nature in our treatment rooms and throughout the office to provide the opportunity for nature to treat the practitioner, patients and our support staff.
So, get outside and bring a plant to work so you can enjoy the many benefits nature will give you, just by being in her presence!
Posted by Sarah Giardenelli, ND, MSOM, LAc.