Traditional Medicine and Nature’s Effects Helped on my Journey with MS

We should learn more about how nature benefits our health

By Phil Levin, Lead Scientist for The Nature Conservancy in Washington

It’s hard to describe the betrayal I felt when I told my legs to move and they wouldn’t. For me, it wasn’t so much that lesions in my spine prevented my brain from communicating with my body; it was that I trusted my body to do what it was told, and it let me down. Multiple sclerosis left me feeling angry, anxious and depressed. I couldn’t sleep. I felt alone. 

As my nervous system responded favorably to the standard treatment of infusions, injections and pills, my doctor suggested I get outside. He told me to go for a walk among trees — feel the rich, crumbly earth and relish the procession of ants as they go about their daily business. And I did. And I was not alone.

My doctor knew that experiencing nature contributes to our health and wellness. Studies consistently show that contact with nature reduces stress. Immersing ourselves within a landscape effortlessly captures our attention, allowing us to recoup our internal resources relieving anxiety and depression. Exposure to nature aids our sleep, improves our general health and increases life satisfaction. While nature can’t cure MS, it certainly was just the prescription I needed to address the many issues that accompany MS.

"Beach studies." Photo by Phil Levin / TNC

And I am not alone. Science has revealed an extraordinarily broad range of benefits of nature contact for sufferers of ADHD, asthma, cancer, cognitive disorders, diabetes and high blood pressure, among many other ailments.

Nature is good for us. But, how much do we need? And what aspects of nature provide the benefits we desire? In short, what is the prescription? 

Imagine that I sit in a car along the seashore and admire the sea, while my wife walks barefoot along the beach, feeling the sand and breeze, smelling the salt air and is enveloped by the sounds of crashing waves. My kids plunge into ocean, frolicking in the surf. Do all these forms of nature exposure do the trick? What is the appropriate ocean dose? 

What is it about a walk along a seashore or through a forest that confers benefits? Is it the type of vegetation I experience? The diversity of species I encounter? Is a winter walk through a leafless forest equally as effective as summer stroll with brilliant green trees? Do we require rugged wildness, or might an urban park or a garden suffice? 

Hiking in the Central Cascades near Cle Elum. Photo by Caleb and Ariana Babcock.

In a newly published study, our multidisciplinary group from The Nature Conservancy, University of Washington and Willamette Partnership proposed an ambitious research agenda on nature contact and health, identifying principal domains of research and key questions that, if answered would provide the basis for evidence-based public-health interventions.

While much evidence is already available, much remains unknown. A robust research effort has the potential to yield high-impact, consequential, public-health insights. Research is needed to identify what attributes of nature are linked to specific health benefits and how much nature delivers what level of benefit. The resulting insights, coupled with better knowledge of exactly how nature benefits wellbeing, are needed to guide health practitioners as they prescribe “the best dose of the best exposures.”

Our study proposes an eight-step process for advancing our understanding of the effects of nature and health. In short, we first need to identify a specific element of nature (for example, tree canopy) and the function (providing wildlife habitat) that we are interested in. We next need to determine the form of the interaction of people with nature — is it the sound of the birds, the smell, the view or some combination? We then must identify the effect of nature on people (for instance, stress reduction). Finally, we must identify specific health impacts of the nature contact (such as reduction in symptoms related to generalized anxiety disorder).

And as we step through this research framework, it is important to note that how people interact with nature will vary with cultural, social, physical or behavioral factors. We call these moderating factors. For instance, for some people, time in a forest may be relaxing. However, if someone experienced physical or psychological trauma in a forest, then that exposure would clearly have a different effect.

Seventeen years ago, when my doctor prescribed a little nature, he couldn’t fully understand how my sense of wonder and awe, a feeling of mystery and a perception of my smallness would help guide me on my journey with MS. And now as I work together with other researchers to better understand how nature contact can help us all, I understand that, indeed, none of us are on this journey alone.

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