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Back to My Roots

The physiological health benefits of plants

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It’s no surprise that the coronavirus ignited a massive spike in Google searches for “house plant.” Studies show that caring for plants in our spaces makes us feel better and can contribute to general happiness. 

In a time when we’re all trapped inside, bringing the outside in is a way to stay calm and collected. For me, owning plants allowed me to care for something when I couldn’t take care of friends and family.

Studies have also shown that plants affect us physically and emotionally when we bring them into our spaces, or when we go out in nature. A study from NASA demonstrated that plants pull toxins from the air and down to their roots to use as food. In this experiment, the circumstances were a little more severe, as NASA was preparing to build airtight spaces using synthetic materials with a lot of toxins we might not normally have in our buildings on Earth. The results, however, remain applicable to our own homes and the removal of toxins and purifying our air. 

Due to the evaporation and transpiration that naturally occurs with plants, putting them in your space also helps to increase and regulate humidity. This can help with dry skin and lips, lessen eye irritation, and reduce pathogen transmission, according to a 2016 study from HortTechnology. Specifically, plants with long, wide leaves, like rainforest plants, are great at increasing humidity. Succulents and cacti, however, not so much. 

Studies demonstrate that having plants in the room generally increases people’s mood and productivity levels, reduces stress levels, and provides better health outcomes.

In a 2009 study from the Journal of Civil Engineering and Architecture Research, participants were placed in rooms mimicking offices with different numbers and types of houseplants. They then had to complete a word search within 10 minutes after a 10-minute acclimation period to the space. The participants were also asked to fill out a questionnaire about their perceptions of the plants, thermal conditions, and air quality. 

“These results showed that the number of plants affects the mood of the subject, and that rooms with three plants were better than rooms with one plant,” the study found. “Also, an increase in the number of plants reduced the feeling of boredom in participants. These facts suggest that plants can be a source of fascination.”

The researchers also found that having plants in a space can increase productivity; but if there is too much fascination with the plants, it can actually reduce productivity.

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A 2009 study from the National Library of Medicine found that plants are beneficial in lowering our stress levels and improving physiological responses. According to results, “Patients in hospital rooms with plants and flowers had significantly more positive physiologic responses, evidenced by lower systolic blood pressure, and lower ratings of pain, anxiety, and fatigue than patients in the control room.”

It makes sense that during the pandemic and times of heightened fear and stress, we would turn to nature for its therapeutic and healing effects. Especially in the first phase of quarantine, connecting to nature was difficult and sometimes not at all possible.

An additional study from the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health exploring the concept of biophilia — or, “a hypothetical human tendency to interact or be closely associated with other forms of life in nature,” according to Merriam Webster — concluded that living in urban cities can leave people feeling disconnected from nature and can produce more negative physiological effects such as higher stress levels and poorer health or well-being. 

“Biophilia may be described as a vague preference for having a natural environment as a consequence of our evolutionary history,” the study authors wrote. “As such, one would expect that plants are agreeable, and that the absence of greenery is sensed, possibly unconsciously, as a stress factor. In other words, the presence of plants can impact the human mind.”

The lack of connection to nature as people move into larger cities and smaller industrial spaces can lead to negative impacts for individuals. In the Pacific Northwest, we are surrounded by so many trees and mountains that, at least for me, the disconnect with nature we might experience in urban environments isn’t as prominent here as it might be in other large cities.

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Biophilla focuses on going out into nature — not necessarily bringing nature indoors through the use of house plants. But the impact of nature on individuals remains the same. 

A 2010 study from the National Library of Medicine found that “forest bathing,” or immersion into forests, promotes “lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments.”

Though these studies focus on the complete immersion into nature, we can infer that bringing nature indoors might mimic some of the same beneficial health effects. I know that owning and caring for plants keeps me sane when I’m trapped inside. They’re nice to look at, and they give me something to do and look after. The vibes just hit differently with a plant-filled space.

Reach Health & Wellness Editor Iseabel Nance at arts@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @iseabel

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