Greenery can cut the need for painkillers and even reduce post-op problems 

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Ten years ago, Rachel Stancliffe, a leading public health expert from Oxford, was visiting her father in a Dorset hospital after he’d suffered a stroke, when she decided to take him around the grounds in a wheelchair to help boost his morale.

But there was nowhere to escape from the complex’s dismal concrete. ‘There were no trees, no greenery — only a single pond that was blocked from public access,’ she recalls.

The experience inspired Rachel — an epidemiologist who helped to develop the Cochrane Library, the world’s leading organisation for analysing health research findings — to launch the NHS Forest, a project funded by charitable events which helps hospitals improve their environments by planting trees.

Trees can help improve mental and physical health, numerous scientific studies have shown. A leading public health expert from Oxford, Rachel Stancliffe, set up NHS Forest to plant trees around hospitals (stock image)

Trees can help improve mental and physical health, numerous scientific studies have shown. A leading public health expert from Oxford, Rachel Stancliffe, set up NHS Forest to plant trees around hospitals (stock image)

Numerous scientific studies have shown that green spaces — and trees in particular — are beneficial to our physical and mental health.

Being in their presence has been found to accelerate recovery from illness and to lower stress levels.

Rachel’s project was implemented first at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, which was redesigned as the ‘hospital in the park’ following building work in 2013.

‘They reorientated it so that it is among plentiful green spaces,’ says Rachel. ‘Our aim is to make the NHS more environmentally friendly and a healthier place for patients and staff.’

Such ideas confirm the vital merit of the Daily Mail’s Christmas campaign, calling for readers to plant trees for a greener Britain — and to donate money to help plant more woodlands and create a healthier, more beautiful nation.

‘There are so many good-quality studies that show the physical and mental health benefits of green spaces and in particular trees,’ says Rachel. ‘Yet people can often spend months in British hospitals where they don’t get to see a single tree.’

NATURE LOWERS STRESS - AND SPEEDS RECOVERY 

It may seem strange to think that trees can help to heal us, but the evidence is both robust and astonishing.

In 1984, pioneering investigator Dr Roger Ulrich, director of Texas A&M University’s Centre for Health Systems and Design, studied the records of patients recovering from gallbladder surgery in a hospital between 1972 and 1981.

He found those whose rooms looked out on to trees recovered more quickly, suffered fewer complications and needed less pain relief than those whose rooms faced brick walls.

Her environmental project was first implemented at Alder Hey Children's Hospital in Liverpool in 2013 (stock image)

Her environmental project was first implemented at Alder Hey Children's Hospital in Liverpool in 2013 (stock image)

Since then, the evidence has steadily increased, says Rachel: ‘We see lower rates of asthma in children in urban areas that have lots of trees.

‘Studies also show when people’s environments feature trees, their immune defences are enhanced and their levels of inflammation, blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol are all lowered. These latter factors can contribute to heart disease and cancer.’

Sara Lom, chief executive of The Tree Council, a charity promoting the importance of trees, told Good Health: ‘The direct benefits of trees to patients and staff in and around health facilities show how, all their lives, trees look after us.’

Such ideas have already been embraced in Japan, where the practice of using trees to boost health has its own name — Shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing’. Some Japanese hospitals have been inspired to build rooftop ‘forests’ where patients can relax.

A 2011 study in the Japanese Journal Of Hygiene found spending just five minutes in these areas helps patients feel calmer, more positive and more motivated to work on their recuperation.

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