Emory scientist reports nature contact may heal humans

March 22, 2001

When physicians and scientists talk about the health effects of environmental exposures, most people think of hazards ranging from air pollution and pesticides to bee stings and sunburns. But Emory University Rollins School of Public Health scientist Howard Frumkin, M.D., Dr. P.H., believes many environmental exposures may have positive health effects and could actually help prevent and treat illnesses. Dr. Frumkin discusses his hypothesis in Volume 20#3, the April 2001 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

"Unfortunately, the idea that exposure to nature can be restorative is almost invisible or nonexistent in health care," says Dr. Frumkin, professor and chairman of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health in Emory's Rollins School of Public Health. "Our standard clinical paradigm involves medications more than non-medical approaches, treatment more than prevention. But many people are intuitively drawn to this idea. They feel restored and healthier in a beautiful landscape, for example. And on the other side, many environmentalists work to preserve nature for a range of very good environmental reasons, but forget that one of the major benefits may be human health."

Dr. Frumkin cites the work of Pulitzer Prize winning author and scientist Edward O. Wilson, whose "biophilia" hypothesis posits that humans are attracted to other living organisms and that this contact with the natural world may benefit health.

"It should come as no great surprise to find that Homo sapiens at least still feels an innate preference for the natural environment that cradled us," Dr. Wilson states in response to Dr. Frumkin's article in American Journal of Preventive Medicine. "Frumkin points to a mass of evidence that such is indeed the case. He argues persuasively for closer attention in preventive medicine of the role of the habitat-seeking instinct by encouraging the union of environmental psychology with medical research." Dr. Frumkin presents evidence for health benefits of four kinds of contact with the natural environment: contact with animals, contact with plants, viewing landscapes and contact with wilderness.

Evidence links animals with human health. Dr. Frumkin points to research that concludes pet owners have fewer health problems than non-pet owners. Examples include lower blood pressure, improved survival after heart attacks and enhanced ability to cope with life stresses.

Contact with plants, from gardening to looking at trees, could also contribute to healing physical and mental ailments, Dr. Frumkin asserts. For example, office employees report that simply having plants in the workplace makes them feel calmer. Although solid evidence is unavailable, Frumkin says, this may be the basis of traditional "healing gardens" in hospitals, and of horticultural therapy that is now widely used in acute hospitals, children's hospitals, nursing homes, psychiatric hospitals and hospices.

Dr. Frumkin points out that evolution may have "hard wired" humans with a preference for specific natural settings.

"Early humans found that places with open views offered better opportunities to find food and avoid predators," Dr. Frumkin explains. "But they needed water to survive and attract prey, and groups of trees for protection. Modern research has shown that people today, given the choice, prefer landscapes that look like this scenario." He notes exposure to African savanna-like settings are associated with self-reported feelings of relaxation and have been shown by psychological testing to enhance mental alertness. In one study, prisoners in inside cells facing a prison courtyard had a 24 percent higher frequency of sick visits than those in exterior cells who looked out at rolling farmland. Likewise, postoperative patients with a view of trees were found to have shorter hospital stays and to need less pain medication than patients facing a brick wall.

Dr. Frumkin says the wilderness experiences such as hiking may also have health benefits, such as the feelings of vigor and appreciation for others often reported by participants in so-called wilderness therapy programs. Frumkin points out that many of these principles are known to architects and planners, who have long used them in designing buildings, parks, and other places. "We physicians have a lot to learn from professionals in other disciplines," he says.

Pursuing the nature/health connection will involve additional research, collaboration between disciplines, and practical application of what has been learned, according to Dr. Frumkin. "We need to identify which kinds of nature contact are most helpful, for which patients, and for which medical conditions," he says. "One day, we may return to building hospitals with healing gardens. Or we may find we can help prevent or treat illness by prescribing gardening, or pet ownership, or vacations in beautiful places."

Emory University Health Sciences Center

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