Is Nature an Antidote to Addiction?


How Being in Nature Can Prevent and Treat Opioid Addiction

Opioid addiction in the United States has reached epidemic levels. More than 183,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2015, with the number of annual fatalities quadrupling over the same period. Last year alone, drug overdoses exceeded some 59,000, the largest-ever annual jump in the nation’s history. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, causing more fatalities than automobile accidents and gun violence combined. In August, President Trump declared the opioid crisis to be a national emergency.

Faced with a situation of this magnitude, schools, hospitals, shelters, and state and local governments find themselves overtaxed and overrun. Treatment options are expensive, resources are stretched to the limit, and the costs to society in terms of lost wages, reduced productivity and sheer human suffering are enormous. Opioid addiction, both in terms of prescription drugs and illegal, “next-step” substances such as heroin, would appear to be an insoluble problem.

Addiction is a complicated public health issue, and prevention will require a multifaceted and systemic approach that also boosts the overall health of a society. As solutions are considered, though, there is one deceptively simple piece of the anti-addiction puzzle that should not be ignored: getting people back to nature.

The Natural Doctor

But what does “just” being in nature do, you ask? The answer is: a whole lot. Hiking or biking through a park, climbing a mountain, or canoeing or kayaking down a river can do wonders for obesity, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure, for starters. And the benefits work both in the positive – exercise and movement – and in the negative: being away from environments filled with fast food, social stress, advertising, alcohol, and yes, drugs. The improved self-image fostered by endorphin-releasing exercise, moreover, can remove inducements to addiction born out of low self-esteem.

Being out in nature helps in other ways, as well. Exposure to natural flora and fauna soothes the mind, reducing levels of anxiety and depression. Even short stints outside can be beneficial. In fact, a study conducted by the University of Queensland in Australia found that just 30 minutes in nature can reduce depression by up to 7% and high-blood pressure by 9%.

And then there’s the sunlight factor: exposure to sunlight increases serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a chemical that helps maintain mood balance, and its presence in higher levels deters a range of mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. This is particularly important in northern climes, where the effects of seasonal-affective disorder (SAD) are aggravated by reduced sunlight hours.

Mother Nature can also help us combat another cause of addiction: sleep deprivation. As children and adolescents spend more and more time in front of television and other electronic devices (to the tune of some seven-and-a-half hours a day!), they are increasingly sleep-deprived.

Time in nature helps us regulate our biological clocks, fostering a more natural rhythm between wakefulness and sleep. This, in turn, increases the ability to concentrate while reducing symptoms related to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). And the benefits aren’t only for children: sleep-deprived adults are much more likely to have a drink to calm down or pop a pill to get to sleep. Over the long term, more serious addictions can result.

Nations Taking Action

Confronted with the overwhelming evidence of the addiction-slaying power of nature, countries around the world are taking action. Finland, which is coping with high levels of alcoholism, depression, and suicide, now promotes a minimum dose of five hours per month in nature as part of its public-health policy.

South Korea, which suffers from high levels of work stress, has created a system of healing forests, replete with “health rangers” trained to initiate nature-goers into the bounties of the outdoors. Programs include prenatal forest meditation, woodcrafts for cancer patients, and special programs for bullied children and sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder. The program is currently being expanded to ensure that every major town has a healing forest nearby.

Other countries combine recreational and outdoor activities with new regulations in creative ways to curb addiction. Iceland, which had one of the highest level of youth drinking in Europe just two decades ago, now boasts some of the lowest rates of teen substance use on the continent. The percentage of 15 and 16-year-olds who had been drunk in the previous month fell from 42% in 1998 to 5% in 2016. The percentage of daily cigarette smokers fell from 23% to 3%, and those who had tried marijuana from 17% to 7%.

A series of measures in combination led to the turnaround. Along with stricter tobacco and alcohol laws and a ban on advertising, links between schools and parents were reinforced through parental organizations, with parents being encouraged to spend consistent time with their children. The encouragement was not merely verbal: the national government increased funding for recreational activities and the City of Reykjavik now provides each family with an annual “Leisure Card” to defray the costs of activities such as sports, music, art, and dance.

A Powerful Friend

However alarming the opioid epidemic is in the United States, signs of hope can be found as near as the closest park. By harnessing the healing power of nature, we can begin to address the issue of addiction in all of the multi-faceted forms it takes, from substance abuse to overwork to harmful relationships. Nature is not a complete panacea, of course. But it is a powerful friend. Want to learn more about the beneficial effects of nature? Check out our other findings here.

Student Conservation Association