Biophilia and the health benefits of nature

– by Chanchal Cabrera and Thierry Vrain –

Nature Deficit Disorder is an informal diagnostic term used to describe what happens when people disconnect from their natural surroundings.  Most of us now live in cities, and we spend nowhere near as much time outside as our ancestors.  This trend to urbanization accelerated in the second half of the 20th century in developed countries where food production became mostly mechanized. This has been seen as desirable progress, but this mass migration away from Nature has had adverse mental and physical health effects.

Recent research has shown that all living organisms on this planet are made of the same molecules and function with the same biochemistry. They have similar genetic code using the same DNA structure and function, the same frantic activity from cellular RNA and protein molecules constantly defying the second law of thermodynamics (entropy).

We now find microbes all around us, including in and on us, and they appear to be running the show in symbiosis with all living organisms at the planetary level.  They regulate serotonin release and mediate responses to the neurotransmitters. It is thought that bacteria in our bodies outnumber our estimated 37.2 trillion human cells by as much as 10 to 1. Being aware of this closeness to other species brings a higher appreciation of our place in the communal space we call the Biosphere.

Most indigenous cultures show a reverence for the animate world, where human beings are deeply enmeshed in its living fabric, and where animals and plants are considered family members. As Michael Pollan puts it in one of his TED talks, “To see the world from another species point of view is a cure for the disease of human self-importance”.

So biophilia is an innate feeling of caring and affiliation for other living entities on the planet – a resonance with all animals and plants, from caterpillars to giant trees. Biophilia is our innate correspondence to other natural beings. This is literally because we have the same DNA as all those living things. It’s a rather nice thought that humans share DNA with oak trees, but we also share it with slugs, bugs and mosquitoes. In fact, there are remarkable correspondences right down to the structure of DNA: the nucleotides, adenine, guanine, thymine and cytosine are the same in all living creatures, whether plant or animal. Different pieces of it are expressing different patterns obviously, but the actual physical structure is the same. We share DNA. So we are literally part of nature. We are not separate. We are not apart.

Plants and animals have evolved very separate ways to deal with their respective worlds.  Plants, like bacteria, evolved an extraordinary register of chemical responses to their surroundings.  They constantly create new molecules – medicinal and otherwise – that influence the behavior of animals, be they predators (herbivores), pollinators or symbionts. Plant intelligence and neurobiology are recently established fields of research that have produced amazing discoveries in the last decade or two. Although plants do not have brains, they do have senses equivalent to those of animals.  Plants are aware of light and sound, and can compute, remember, imagine, taste, and respond appropriately to all environmental stimuli.

Take a bath. In a forest

Most people would agree that escaping the noise and pollution of the city to spend time in nature is a good thing. We all know we feel better in a natural environment, and we bring potted plants and cut flowers into our urban lives to compensate for the dearth of nature in the built environment. Now there is exciting new research confirming the health-promoting, stress-reducing effects of contact with nature, and especially of being in a forest. Such contact is of great benefit to our physical, emotional and mental wellbeing.

Horticulture therapy – that is, the healing power of being in nature and interacting with plants – is an ancient concept made anew. The Pharaohs were advised in Egyptian papyri to walk in the gardens for healing. And today, nursing homes, rehab centers and prisons are just a few of the places you can find horticulture therapy being practiced.

Over 35 years ago, the Forest Agency of Japan advocated the practice of walking in the forest and being in the presence of trees as a useful health-promoting activity. The Japanese word for it is shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) and it has become an established part of Japanese medicine. Over 60 designated forest bathing sites have been established across the country, and doctors can prescribe you time in the woods to help you deal with stress, hypertension or anxiety. j

Chanchal Cabrera MSc, FNIMH, RH(AHG), is a medical herbalist horticulture therapist, a director of Innisfree Botanic Garden, and professor of herbal medicine at Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine. Thierry Vrain PhD, is a director of Innisfree Botanic Garden, Courtenay, BC


Health benefits of forest bathing

Medical research suggests that human immune activity may be increased in response to breathing in air containing the essential oils of spruce, fir and pine (www.hphpcentral.com/article/forest-bathing). Exposure to forest environments also appears to reduce the concentration of cortisol in saliva, reduce the concentrations of urinary adrenaline and noradrenaline, reduce prefrontal cerebral activity, reduce blood pressure and stabilize autonomic nervous activity in humans (forest-medicine.com/epage01.html). Recent studies conducted even show that forest bathing increases a component of the immune system that fights cancer (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov).

Further reading

Buhner S, The Lost Language of Plants, The Secret Teachings of Plants, Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm, Chelsea Green Publishing, Vermont

Clifford, A, 2018, Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature

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