Prescribing Nature

Image source: Applied Channel Theory in Chinese Medicine: Wang Ju-Yi’s Lectures on Channel Therapeutics by Wang Ju Yi and Jason D Robertson.

Last time I checked, it’s still summer and I hope you are all finding ways to enjoy it. We have much longer daylight hours and that make getting outside a little bit easier this time of year. In fact, a recent study showed that spending a total of two hours, or 120 minutes, a week outside can greatly benefit your health and that Doctors are actually prescribing “time in nature.”

This prescription may seem absurd to some but it’s refreshing to see allopathic medicine acknowledge the importance of the natural world to our health. When I decided to study Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Acupuncture, one of the things that appealed to me was how the body was conceptualized and accepted as part of nature. Coming from a background of studying and teaching environmental literature and nature writing, I had no problem with these ideas: we are nature and our bodies are microcosms of the greater environment we inhabit. Living is a constant negotiation between the two.

The benefits of being outside are wide-ranging: “A wealth of research indicates that escaping to a neighborhood park, hiking through the woods, or spending a weekend by the lake can lower a person’s stress levels, decrease blood pressure and reduce the risk of asthma, allergies, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, while boosting mental health and increasing life expectancy.” This is quite a list! We treat all of these conditions in our clinic weekly. While it may be tempting to think that even more time outside would lead to even greater benefits, researchers have found that is not the case. Even more interesting about their findings is that the two-hour dose cut across economic, gender, and ethnic demographics, as well as those with pre-existing health conditions: “Two hours a week was the threshold for both men and women, older and younger adults, different ethnic groups, people living in richer or poorer areas, and even for those living with long term illnesses.”

While many people may not be able to drive to Sequoia or Lake Elsinore for the weekend to spend time in the trees or by the water, they can still get the benefit of connecting with nature by walking around their neighborhood, sitting on their balcony, getting out to their local park, or strolling along the beach.

How one defines nature these days is certainly debatable, as I often hear people from LA say they need “to get out into nature.” But I believe nature is all around us, even if it seems there’s more concrete than trees. When you get yourself outside, look around. What trees are there? What flowers, animals, or insects? Researchers don’t exactly know why these experiences outside create these salutary effects, but some theories are that getting outside requires physical activity, encourages interaction with others, and invites us to take time away from our devices and screens. Paying attention to the external world, gives us a break from the never-ending stream of thoughts that dominate our minds. I suspect those tenets of TCM can help us understand this too: connecting with the outside world is a way to connect the inside world.

Consider this prescription, no matter your health issue. Go outside, get off your device, for two hours a week? Let me know what happens!