Health and Houseplants
The Best Therapy? Talk to your plants!
In many ways, the world seems to have gone crazy. The politics, the environmental disasters, war and economic worries, the incredibly explosive nearly constant change… attacks on our physical and mental health pop up everywhere. Taking care of houseplants might not seem like much of a solution to these problems but it may have some surprising benefits. Plants filter toxins out of the air while adding more oxygen. Taking care of plants can uplift our moods, give us artistic opportunities, positive routines and structure. They can help us relax and feel better. Some psychologists have started using plants as part of their therapy (see below). The World Health Organization included mental health as a foundation for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.1
We may not have enough people-therapists, but no shortage of plants - and they may prove more effective anyway. As a personal anecdote, I don't think I've ever felt anxious or depressed, walked out into the backyard garden or started taking care of houseplants, and not felt better after 5 to 10 minutes. One experiment demonstrated how people felt happier after spending a few minutes in a room with a few houseplants than those in a room without plants.2 A study in Taiwan showed positive results for lessening anxiety as well as greater concentration, productivity, and academic performance after spending time with plants in indoor spaces.3
A surprising amount of stress-relief comes from taking care of plants. It connects us with something real, with a little bit of nature, and pulls us back from the constant deluge of digital distractions. It improves our mood, distracts us from superficial worries, and lets us more easily relax. One study showed how taking care of plants improved children's relationships, emotional intelligence and various social skills while reducing their incidence of depression.4 More studies5 show how taking care of houseplants can improve concentration and memory, increase creativity and make us more productive. Watching plants grow gives us a sense of accomplishment. They can become like pets and help us establish good habits, routines, and attention to detail.
And that's just the mental health benefit list. The physical benefits are also impressive.
A NASA Study6 working on ways to keep space station air clean showed how common indoor plants absorb carbon dioxide, release oxygen, and provide a natural way to remove volatile organic pollutants like benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene. Another study shows how much nitrogen dioxide indoor plants can remove from indoor air7 and according to a third report,8 an average, medium-sized plant produces about 120 milliliters of oxygen per day. An average human breathes about 550 liters per day but every bit helps!
More physical benefits include increased humidity and more physical activity. More indoor humidity in dry climates can prevent dry skin and respiratory discomfort. The extra activity from lifting bags of potting mix, moving plants around, repotting, and pruning can help counterbalance the couch-potato influences of our cell phone, laptop, TV, and increasingly digitalized lives.
Recognizing the many benefits of taking care of plants, several new therapies have evolved: "Horticultural Therapy"9 now used in nursing homes and mental health facilities, "Forest Bathing"10 techniques popularized in Japan, and Aromatherapy results with fragrant plants like jasmine and lavender.11 These therapies may be great but much more costly than just buying a houseplant or two. They're excellent listeners - and they don't charge by the hour.
This great article, Why Gardening Makes You Happy and Cures Depression,12 written by the Australian Permaculture College, makes the case that getting our hands dirty gardening increases the neurotransmitter serotonin in our systems. (Along with other factors, a lack of it in our brains causes depression.)
We tried to make this post as scientific as possible. It includes 12+ references, a record for us. But you don't have to read all these long studies and articles to prove the point that plants help improve our physical and mental health. Just find some plants outside or spend a bit of quality time with your houseplants while staying mindful of how you feel. Your personal experience is the best and most believable proof.
- Mental health - WHO
- (PDF) The effect of indoor plants on human comfort
- Effects of Indoor Plants on Self-Reported Perceptions: A Systemic Review
- Physiological and Psychological Effects of Visual Stimulation with Green Plant Types
- How Indoor plants Can Help With Mental and Emotional Health
- Interior Landscape Plants for Indoor Air Pollution Abatement - NASA Technical Reports Server (NTRS)
- Potted plants can remove the pollutant nitrogen dioxide indoors | Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health
- Do mummified trees and green walls produce oxygen?
- About Horticultural Therapy
- Forest bathing: what it is and where to do it
- 17 of the Most Fragrant Plants to Grow Indoors | Gardener's Path
- Why Gardening Makes You Happy and Cures Depression - Permaculture College Australia