When we think of our health care provider, most of us probably picture a doctor in a white coat, sitting in a sterile office under fluorescent lights and filling out prescriptions for the pills we need. But evidence is mounting that adding a dose of “vitamin N” — or, simply put, nature — to not only medical settings but also our homes and workplaces can improve health outcomes, affecting everything from how much time we spend in the hospital to employee productivity.

Both Preventive and Healing

Vitamin N can play a significant role in a healthy lifestyle. Spending time in nature — which various studies define as a tree-lined street, a native forest or even simply images of green space — has been shown to reduce stress and fatigue, lower blood pressure and combat obesity, among other things.

Northwestern University’s Dr. Teresa Horton says the evidence for vitamin N’s positive effects continues to grow: “More and more, it’s very clear that when you control for socioeconomic status and ethnicity, people who live in areas with trees and green space have better health outcomes, including lower rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”

Exposure to nature has been shown to improve psychological and cognitive health too, with studies pointing to improvements in ability to direct attention, memory, self-esteem, ADHD symptoms, mood, depression and anxiety.

Even after a patient has been admitted to a medical setting, incorporating aspects of nature can help improve healing. In a seminal 1984 study, patients with a view of trees outside their windows recovered more quickly than those who looked out on a brick wall. Many studies since have shown comparable positive health effects in a range of settings.

Green Doctors and Hospitals

The health care industry has responded with an array of innovations. In hospitals, interior design increasingly emphasizes natural light and access to nature. Many hospitals across the country now feature “healing gardens,” where patients can decompress among plants and fountains.

Some doctors, such as California physician Daphne Miller, are now writing actual prescriptions to spend time in nature. Organizations such as the National Environmental Education Foundation share information with health care providers to link their patients with natural areas. Patients undergoing rehabilitation increasingly turn to horticultural therapy, and health advocates in this country are now exploring ways to emulate Japan, which since 2006 has established scores of “forest therapy bases” across the country.

More Research Needed

Researchers have been careful to point out the limits of our knowledge. Dr. Horton cautions that many studies may apply only to a specific condition, population or time frame, while other research doesn’t adequately isolate nature from other health-promoting factors, such as increased exercise.

At a recent symposium, Dr. William Sullivan of the University of Illinois said that, if we are going to start giving prescriptions for nature more broadly, we need to know more about factors such as what dose, frequency and duration are most effective.

“Do people need views of green leafy trees?” he asked. “What about wintertime views? Are trees necessary, or will shrubs suffice?”

Bringing Nature to Work

Despite such open questions, vitamin N can be a valuable component of your overall employee health program. Here are a few ways you can incorporate nature into your workplace:

  • Encourage employees to get outdoors, such as taking lunchtime walks.
  • Provide communal outdoor areas with natural landscaping, and schedule an occasional meeting out there.
  • Add houseplants and nature-themed artwork.
  • Provide natural lighting and views of green landscapes.
  • Sign your company up to help restore a local natural area.
  • Office overhaul? Consider biophilic design, a building philosophy based on humans’ need to connect to the natural world.
  • Or consider these wellness changes.

Don Parker is a Chicago-based freelance writer, editor and content producer with extensive experience in the fields of conservation and the environment. He has served as editor for Chicago Wilderness and the Forest Preserves of Cook County, spending much of his career telling the stories of natural areas and the people working to preserve them. Don now works with a range of clients to deliver content that opens doors and inspires action.