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A New Branch of Health Care: Nature Therapy

Michelle Simon, PhD, ND President & CEO, Institute for Natural Medicine Michelle Simon, PhD, ND President & CEO, Institute for Natural Medicine
DaVinci Laboratories

I have always been fascinated by fractals. The repeating patterns in nature that reflect the large scale on the small scale. There are large interactions, ocean and sky that scale down to the miniscule, water and vapor molecules. What happens between us and the environment is reflected on what happens in our own cells, in our own microbiome. As a natural medicine practitioner, I see how changing just one variable in a person’s health plan influences many other areas. It’s the same in nature; a web of interactions exists and connections exist across wide swaths of the natural world. When we bring these ideas together, we have the burgeoning field of nature therapy, literally spending time in the outdoors and its positive impact on health and wellness.

Nature is integral to each of us and how we see and make sense of the world. Even our language is infused with metaphors from the natural world, like branching out, putting down roots, right as rain. Plants, microbes, insects, animals and humans exist in an interdependent network. Our interfacing with the natural world is important to our health and important to our vitality. Nature therapy has long been a core to the foundation of naturopathic medicine and at long last is emerging as a branch of health care. Having your doctor recommend “ a walk on the bike path,” or “time along the river,” will hopefully become a common prescription. The more we learn of the immediate and long-term effects of being in nature, the stronger the argument for including “nature prescriptions” into health care treatment plans becomes.

So, what are the known effects? There are studies1,2 that show a short walk in a park or natural setting compared to an urban walk provides benefits to mood, memory, concentration, cortisol levels, natural killer cell number and function, heart rate and blood pressure.3 Remarkable! Community gardening studies with diabetics show that simply growing vegetables, with no other intervention, improved HbA1c scores.

As a naturopathic doctor I am keenly interested in the determinants of health. Environment is chief among those elements. The term nature deficit disorder (NDD), coined by Richard Luov in his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, captures what I believe is a factor in the declining baseline health of Americans. NDD is associated with many negative health consequences, obesity, cardiovascular disorder, ADD (attention deficit disorder), generalized anxiety disorder, myopia and burnout syndrome. Society has changed over the generations so that people spend more and more time indoors and especially connected to screens. Teens spend nearly seven hours per day, looking at screens. Adults more than that. And with many of us working remotely, that metric has further increased. Climate change makes weather more extreme which does not help the case. As I write this, my colleagues in the desert southwest are experiencing daily temperatures in the 120s. Many people stay indoors nearly 22 hours or more per day and have little comfort being outside or have become afraid of the outdoors.

One of the most powerful healing agents we have is our connection to the natural world. Long before modern health care evolved, we relied on nature for healing. As we continue battling COVID and as many of us are distancing from friends and colleagues, the Institute for Natural Medicine (INM) is helping educate the public about natural medicine with tips and techniques for staying healthy and resilient. INM’s upcoming series of webinars highlight the power of nature to help improve health. Whether it is time spent in the wild, or having potted plants indoors, there are benefits to be realized. Find out more about these free public webinars and register at www.naturemed.org/nature-therapy-series.

We know that attending means more time in front of your screen! But we hope you can join us and spread the word!

This series is a sequel to our last webinar series, “A Five-part Series to Foster Your Best Health,” that focused on basic naturopathic medicine philosophy and approaches.

The topics for that webinar were Nutrition and Digestion, Movement and Breathing, Emotional Health and Relationships, a Natural Medicine Cabinet and Hands on Approaches to Health. All of the webinars are available for viewing at any time at our website: https://naturemed.org/5-part-series/.

INM is invested in educating the public about the benefits of natural medicine and how to utilize evidence- based strategies to improve their health. INM maintains a directory to help connect patients with practitioners who are trained to guide you on your healthcare journey through the Find an ND tool (https://naturemed.org/find-an-nd/).


1 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27730509/.

2 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30486416/.

3 Berman MG, et al. “Cognitive benefits of interacting with nature,” Psychological Science. December 2008; 19 (12): 1207-12.

Michelle Simon, PhD, ND President & CEO, Institute for Natural Medicine

In 1992, the leadership core of naturopathic doctors established the Institute for Natural Medicine (INM) as a not for profit organization dedicated to advancing natural medicine. The purpose of the INM is to increase awareness of, broaden public access to, and encourage research about natural medicine and therapies. Among its milestones the INM counts the launch of the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges (AANMC) as an independent organization, leading California’s efforts to obtain licensure, developing an interactive childhood education program focused on healthy eating and lifestyles called Naturally Well in 2017, and expanding residency access by establishing and funding a residency program in 2018. INM has joined forces with the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP), serving as the charitable arm, to deepen access to naturopathic care, public education and research. Dr. Michelle Simon serves as president and CEO of INM, is a licensed naturopathic physician, clinician, educator, and leader in many organizations dedicated to improving the quality and delivery of health care. In addition to holding a naturopathic doctorate from Bastyr University, she also holds a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Simon has served on the boards for the Integrative Healthcare Policy Consortium (IHPC), the AANP and the Naturopathic Physicians Research Institute (NPRI). Dr. Simon also served nine years on the Washington State Health Technology Clinical Committee which is part of the Health Technology Assessment program that examines the scientific evidentiary basis for efficacy, safety and cost effectiveness of health care technologies. She was also an invited participant for health care economics at “Summit on Integrative Medicine and the Health of the Public” at the Institute for Medicine (IOM) in 2009. Dr. Simon was recognized as the 2018 Physician of the Year by the AANP.