New Study Finds That Natural Environments Can Help With Addiction Recovery And Cravings

Many mental health and treatment professionals associate today’s widespread issues with addiction to a societal disconnection of mind, body, and nature. There have been many studies published that demonstrate the numerous benefits to one’s physical and mental health as a result of exposure to nature. A new study from the University of Plymouth is the first to find that simply being exposed to ‘green spaces’ from your home can reduce cravings for alcohol, cigarettes and unhealthy foods. Built upon pervious studies examining exercising in nature and reduced cravings, this study indicates that exposure to greenery can reduce cravings regardless of physical activity. ‘Natural Environments and Craving: The Mediating Role of Negative Affect,’ led by Dr. Leanne Martin, found that being able to see nature/greenery from home can decrease the strength and frequency of addiction cravings.

Dr. Martin conducted the research as part of her master’s degree from Plymouth University’s School of Psychology. The research was also supported by the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter.

It has been known for some time that being outdoors in nature is linked to a person’s wellbeing. But for there to be a similar association with cravings from simply being able to see green spaces adds a new dimension to previous research. This is the first study to explore this idea, and it could have a range of implications for both public health and environmental protection programs in the future.

-Dr. Leanne Martin

Many researchers are using these findings to promote environmental protection policies and encourage communities to invest in green spaces. These would help maximize public health benefits and increase productivity amongst those working in large and otherwise stark urban areas.

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Japan’s ‘Forest Therapy’ Programs

Policies regarding the protection of green areas and forests have taken off in Japan. Japan is known for having stressful and fervent work conditions. Many blame the country’s high suicide rates (the this highest suicide rates in the developed world) on this. The practice of ‘shinrin-yoku’ or ‘forest bathing’ is a type of therapy sponsored by Japan’s Forestry Agency to address the country’s mental health stigma. Since 2004, they have put $4 million into forest therapy research. It has been found that that being in nature can relieve stress and increase productivity. This is understood by measuring participants’ blood pressure and their number of NK cells or ‘natural killer’ cells in a participant’s body.  NK cells are a white blood cells which help prevent viral infections and reject tumor and cancer cells.

Since Japan’s policy implementations, South Korea has spent almost $140 million on a new National Forest Therapy Center. Other Western countries, like Finland, are also funding similar studies after the optimistic results of Japanese forest therapy programs. Experts from Japan’s Forestry industry have been hired by many of these programs to try to replicate these results.

Exposure To Greenery Alleviates Cravings

The Plymouth University Study specifically measured the proportion of green space in an individual’s residential neighborhood, the presence of green views from one’s home, access to a garden or park, the frequency of use of these public spaces, and other aspects regarding one’s access and exposure to green spaces. Participants completed a survey identifying the relationships between reported nature exposure and their cravings of alcohol, cigarettes, and unhealthy foods. Access to a garden public allotment was associated with a decrease in craving strength and frequency. Additionally, residential views consisting of 25% or more green space produced similar responses.

In response to studies specifically looking at physical activity in nature, researchers measured participant’s reported physical activity in green spaces. They found that these reduced cravings occurred regardless of one’s physical activity levels.

Craving contributes to a variety of health-damaging behaviors such as smoking, excessive drinking and unhealthy eating. In turn, these can contribute to some of the greatest global health challenges of our time, including cancer, obesity and diabetes. Showing that lower craving is linked to more exposure to green spaces is a promising first step. Future research should investigate if and how green spaces can be used to help people withstand problematic cravings, enabling them to better manage cessation attempts in the future.

-Dr. Sabine Pahl, Associate Professor in Psychology at the University, who helped conduct the study stated.

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Natalie Hoeg

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  • Natalie Hoeg received her Bachelor's degree from Stetson University, majoring in political science, philosophy, and sociology.

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