Why the NHS are turning to gardening as a remedy for mental & physical health issues




Over the next 5 years, it’s estimated that NHS social prescribers will hand out approximately 900,000 appointments for gardening or spending time in green spaces in response to mental health issues.

These appointments are known as ‘Green Prescriptions’ and serve as an alternative to western medicine’s over-reliance on prescription medication when it comes to mental health ailments.

In September 2019, a report by the Mail Online and The Guardian found that 12 million people in England (1 in 4) were taking “addictive” prescription medication such as antidepressants. Its findings also revealed that the number of prescriptions for antidepressants were on the rise.



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A 2019 report found that a quarter of the English population were on addictive prescription meds

Thankfully, it’s not all bad news, with many across society reporting a greater appreciation of green spaces and the natural environment following months of social isolation during last year’s lockdown. In fact the government has recently (July 2020) announced that it will be investing a further £4million on ‘Green Prescriptions’ in a 2 year pilot that focuses on four urban and rural areas which have been hit the hardest by Coronavirus.

So what are Green Prescriptions?

In essence, a Green Prescription is when your doctor formally recommends you to connect with nature in order to positively impact your physical, or mental health. The system was first explored by urban areas in New Zealand in an attempt to alleviate healthcare costs and make use of the country’s abundance of natural environments.

What form do they take?

A Green Prescription is all about having a natural intervention on your health. Because mental and physical health issues range depending on the patient, the prescribed ‘green’ treatment can take many forms. In its most simple form, your doctor can recommend that you take a walk in a green space once a week such as a local park. Some of the more substantial prescriptions can see patients being connected with local food growing groups such as community gardens.



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In their simplest form, a Green Prescription can involve a walk in a 'green space'


What is the science behind Green Prescriptions?

Reports from the World Health Organisation in 2016 and 2017 touted the positive effected of increased exposure to natural green spaces and especially ongoing activity in said spaces. The reports discussed how providing direct access to these spaces can promote improvements to mental and physical health, as well as reduced morbidity and mortality in urban residents.

There is also some evidence from the National Academy of Sciences in the US to suggest that providing more green spaces for urban residents can be associated with long-term health benefits including reduced death rates, reduced cardiovascular disease, and reduced psychiatric problems.



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Time spent in Green Spaces can have long term health benefits such as reduced rates of cardiovascular disease

More interestingly, the PNAS has also discussed the potential for natural environments to play a role in our immune system and our bodies response to virus’ such as Covid-19. The evidence suggests that contact with microbes in the natural environment can train and reinforce our immune systems and the microbiomes in our skin, airways and digestives system.


What does the data tell us?

A 2016 study found the benefits of gardening to health and wellbeing were similar to the difference in health between people living in the wealthiest parts of the country, compared to the poorest.

According to NHS data from existing trials, 6-8 months after receiving their Green Prescription, 63% of patents were more active, with 46% reporting to have lost weight.

NHSForest.org has alluded to the potential savings in healthcare costs through increased Green Prescriptions. It states that “If every household in England were provided with good access to quality green space it could save an estimated £2.1 billion in health care costs.”

For a full breakdown of the studies and reports associated with Green Prescriptions in response to mental and physical health issues, visit: https://nhsforest.org/sites/default/files/Prescribing%20Green%20Space-3.pdf

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Activities such as vegetable gardening can have a positive impact on long term mental health

Whilst Green Prescriptions are very much a new trend with few healthcare trusts actually prescribing them, the science very much supports the probability of the system having a positive impact on the country’s health and a reduction in overall healthcare costs. What remains is for individual GP practices to expand their prescriptions to include ‘Green’ activities one by one, and for patients to continue to request these natural alternatives to pharmaceutical remedies.