There’s no doubt that the fast pace of modern life can be stressful – and anxiety is a common feeling. Indeed, it is the most common mental health condition in the U.S. and affects some 40 million adults, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. But studies have identified a household object that could calm you down and relieve some of your troubles.
In fact, the items in question are a common sight in hospital wards, where they prove beneficial to the patients. You may even have them in your home without realizing just how much their presence helps. And they don’t just relieve stress, they provide a plethora of other health benefits too.
On the other hand, some people are exposed to the items in question more than others. Regardless, you can always just buy some and use them to decorate your home. They make your living space look nice and you can feel more relaxed just by being among them. But what are these mysterious objects?
You may live close to them, or you could be around them all the time. And if you have a significant other, perhaps you get them regularly as gifts. In case you hadn’t worked it out, we’re talking about flowers and plants. Apparently, new research has revealed there’s more to them than meets the eye.
You see, flowers do far more than just add a splash of color to any room. Actually, there’s a whole theory behind what different shades of flower mean and the appropriate occasion to gift them. Then there’s the art of flower arranging and the role that they, along with herbs, play in alternate therapies.
For example, in 2015 a research team from Northumbria University in the U.K. led by Professor Mark Moss found that rosemary oil could potentially help future memory among older people. The scientists exposed 60 senior volunteers to that, lavender oil or no scent at all and tested their retention. Apparently, they found that rosemary oil increased memory, whereas lavender seemed more like a relaxant.
So how does rosemary help memory retention and how would it benefit us in the future? According to BBC News, it strengthens a neurotransmitter known as acetylcholine, which prevents it being broken down by an enzyme. And by being inhaled, it allows tiny molecules to go into the bloodstream and into the brain without the risk of being broken down by the liver, as happens when a drug is ingested. So not only was the research good for discovering the benefits of rosemary, it also had implications for aromatherapy in general.
Indeed, when you swallow drugs, the liver reduces their effects to some extent. If a medicine is inhaled through aromatherapy, however, the chemicals also get absorbed into the bloodstream. Actually, the blood tests Moss’ team took from volunteers afterwards provided evidence of this with the rosemary oils. And it holds potential applications for the future.
The Northumbria University study provides an insight into how aromatherapy works and how it might aid other branches of medicine. And since rosemary has memory retention properties, there’s a possibility that it could have applications for dementia treatment. And lavender isn’t the only plant that relaxes the brain in contrast to rosemary, either.
In 2010 Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany, performed more plant-based research courtesy of Professor Helmut Hass and Doctor Olga Sergeeva. The team, led by the former, found that one in five Germans took a prescribed sedative once a year. As a result, the researchers sought an alternative to the current medical relaxants and found a potential in the jasmine herb.
The team’s research, published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, was carried out on both people and mice. The study tested hundreds of fragrances and found that jasmine can act as a relaxant when inhaled. Apparently, the vapors produce a natural calm in test subjects that could be adapted for nervous conditions and sleep disorders. Hatt added that the results validated aromatherapy in scientific research.
In addition, the beneficial effects of plants and flowers go further than clinical possibilities. A University of Hawaii study found that they can help clear toxins from the air we breathe. This is done, they say, when plants absorb dangerous organic compounds from the air into their lives and transfer them to their roots, where they are broken down by microbes. In other words, they’re technically detoxifying the air of pollutants we’ve become so accustomed to, especially in urban areas.
Furthermore, apparently plants and flowers are good for both women and men. Indeed, a 2005 study by Rutgers University discovered that flowers elicited a positive reaction from both genders when randomly handed out in elevators. The research said, “We suggest that cultivated flowers are rewarding because they have evolved to rapidly induce positive emotion in humans, just as other plants have evolved to induce varying behavioral responses in a wide variety of species…”
But that’s not all flowers can do for you – it’s possible they can even make you more altruistic. Another study, this time by Harvard University, found that living with fresh flowers can incite compassion among people. The team noticed that students who spent fewer than seven days living in a flower-decorated residence saw an increase in feelings of kindness towards others.
Meanwhile, the American Society for Horticultural Science published an intriguing study on plants and flowers in 2008. The authors, Richard H. Mattson and Seong-Hyun Park, wanted to see the therapeutic impact of having flowers in the hospital rooms of patients recovering from surgery of the abdomen. And with this in mind, they took their research into a hospital with an idea.
The experiment spanned six months – starting in July 2005 and ending in January 2006 – at a Korean hospital. The report stated, “Using various medical and psychological measurements, this study performed a randomized clinical trial with surgical patients to evaluate if plants in hospital rooms have therapeutic influences.”
For its part, the study included putting 90 people who had just had undertaken appendectomy surgery in rooms either without or without flowers. Within the pool of participants, researchers selected 38 females and 52 males between the ages of 21 and 60.
To gain further insight into any possible patient responses, the plants and foliage came from eight different species. Furthermore, to make the test fair no one could see any species of plant from their hospital windows – with only views of the sky.
So how would you gather the type of research data that scientists were looking for? Well, to begin with, they spooled through the patients’ medical records. And the study didn’t just take their physical condition into account, but also looked to psychological states of mind, too.
Specifically, these details encompassed the patients’ time spent in hospital, vital signs and pain control medication used, if any. They also covered the pain intensity, pain distress, anxiety and fatigue (PPAF) scale, among other details. According to the official report, the experiment was the first of its kind performed inside hospitals.
However, thanks to other studies on the benefits of flowers, the team had some idea what to expect. The researchers said, “A number of studies have shown that indoor plants make air healthier and provide an optimum indoor environment.”
Apparently, putting flowers in hospital rooms “had a positive influence linking directly to [the] health outcomes of surgical patients.” So, what were the benefits of these plants? Well, the study revealed how participants felt less pain or fatigue and less need for painkillers than patients in flower-less rooms.
Furthermore, the flower test group experienced lower levels of anxiety than their counterparts and had a more positive disposition. The study added, “Colorful fresh cut flowers and blooming or green plants could be a complementary medicine for patients.” And of course, patients can appreciate cut plants all year round, not just in pleasant weather.
Obviously, there are exceptions to this theory: patients in intensive care, for example. Nevertheless, the paper continued, “… This study provides strong evidence that contact with plants is directly beneficial to patients’ health.” Researchers stated that since patients were taking less painkillers, the addition of flowers could even lower medical costs.
Other researchers have delved into the curative power of flowers too. One particular project, conducted by the Declaration of Helsinki and approved by the Ethics Committees of the Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences at Chiba University, Japan, shed some more light on the issue.
For its part, the 2017 study elaborated on its reasons for conducting the research, citing the impact of modern living on our mental health. It said, “Currently, more than half of the global population lives in an urban environment and is constantly exposed to stressors.”
It added, “Recent research has demonstrated that the natural environment plays an important role in health promotion and that there is a positive relationship between nature-derived stimuli and human health.” But why do we feel better when we get closer to nature? Well, scientists have a theory on that, too.
It’s called the “back to nature” theory, and it dates back to before humans evolved to our current stage. The concept is that being closer to the nature makes us relax on a primal level. Indeed, if we consider the industrial revolution to herald the beginning of the urban age, as a species we’ve actually spent only 0.01 percent of our history in a modern environment.
Furthermore, the Declaration of Helsinki study goes on to attribute the stresses of modern life at least in part to our everyday artificial environment. So naturally, when humans are exposed to nature, they relax more, according to the theory.
As a result, the study identified flora and foliage as a good way to link back to nature. Its documentation also cites previous research – including the ASHS hospital flower experiment – as an influence. However, the teams felt that science needs more investigation into the subject of visual stimulation from flowers.
Meanwhile, the researchers had prior experience with psychological flower studies during an experiment on office workers. They found that viewing roses calmed people down and fresh pansies relieved stress. Apparently, though, artificial flowers didn’t have the same impact as their fresh counterparts. Furthermore, color also seemed to have some influence on study participants.
For example, while real, colored flowers had the desired relaxation effects on study members, viewing a plain white picture didn’t. And while other studies used indices of autonomic nervous activity measurement to monitor participant responses, the researchers chose another method. They used something known as near-infrared time-resolved spectroscopy (TRS), viewing how the right and left prefrontal cortex reacted to seeing roses.
And so the scientists set out to observe how their test group’s brains reacted to observing red roses. The participants – 15 female students from an unnamed Japanese university – all knew the aim of the study beforehand. During the experiment, researchers led the women, one by one into a room with a cardboard box.
The subjects viewed the cardboard box for one minute and then viewed roses for three minutes while sat down. And during this, experts monitored their physiological responses. Participants then had their chairs turned in the opposite direction and rested for five minutes. Following that, they then looked back at the table with roses, only the flowers had been covered with the cardboard box. Then, according to the study, “To eliminate influences due to order of viewing roses vs. the control condition, visual stimuli were presented in a counterbalanced order.”
Subsequent to the study, researchers observed the reactions in the left and right prefrontal cortex of the students’ brains. This is the area of the brain that handles social behavior, personality and expression. And the results were illuminating, to say the least. Indeed, they revealed that looking at roses induced similar results as inhaling rose essential oil or viewing foliage.
That is to say, the roses had a pronounced relaxing effect on the students when they observed them. Curiously, the participants’ nervous system readings didn’t quite match up with previous studies. Our visceral nerves network is divided into two halves: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, which together balance our reactions.
The sympathetic nervous system governs our “fight or flight” response to danger, while the parasympathetic one relaxes us after. In previous studies, the research team found participants viewing real pansies experienced a reduction in sympathetic activity. In the case of the rose study, the TRS scans showed a reaction in the parasympathetic nervous system and a decrease in pulse rates.
But what could be the cause of this reaction? Well, the Declaration of Helsinki study isn’t actually sure, and the entire phenomena is still a mystery. However, it does indicate that there may be many things to learn from further research into flowers and foliage.
The study continued, “The reasons for the discrepancy in the literature regarding changes in the sympathetic vs. parasympathetic nervous system is unknown – and we believe that this will be an important topic of future research.” However, the study added, “As prefrontal cortex activity is calmed and sympathetic nerve activity is suppressed, it seems that viewing roses brings about a physiological relaxing effect.”
The takeaway from the study is that, just like in previous flora tests, roses make people feel more comfortable. Indeed, as the study concluded, “These psychological benefits of viewing roses are considered greatly significant in modern times,” It also means we may see more developments of how plants can help our wellbeing in the future.