A natural way to lower your blood pressure?

By Alistair Gardiner
Published June 14, 2021

Key Takeaways

It may feel cliched, but purchasing flowers for a loved one is almost always a good call—and not just to win you some brownie points. 

Research indicates that the mere presence of flowers can provide a range of health benefits, most of which involve the mitigation of psychological and physiological markers of stress. For example, studies have indicated that patients staying in hospital rooms with flowers experience lower levels of anxiety and fatigue compared with patients staying in rooms without flowers. 

From improving blood pressure to lowering cortisol levels, here are three reasons you should have a flower arrangement on the table, according to recent studies. 

Flowers and Blood pressure

Looking at flowers certainly feels great, but what’s happening in our minds and bodies when we view a nearby bouquet? Until recently, there wasn’t much research on the physiological response. That’s why researchers conducted a study, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology in 2020, that examined the stress-related cardiovascular and endocrine responses we exhibit when viewing flowers.

Two of the study’s experiments focused on whether viewing flowers affected subjects’ blood pressure. Research has shown that nature walks or watching a nature documentary can reduce elevated blood pressure. As such, researchers hypothesized that following an experience of psychological stress, viewing an image of a flower would have a similar effect.

In the first experiment, 31 participants viewed four different stimuli for a set amount of time: an image of a white chrysanthemum, a mosaic of fragments of the flower image, a control fixed point, and a negative image (including violence, injuries, or car crashes). Researchers monitored the blood pressure of each participant during the 20-minute study period. The second experiment involved a similar design, but included images of a blue sky with clouds and a chair in an empty room, so researchers could compare subjects’ reactions.

Participants' blood pressure was “significantly lower” when they were looking at the image of the flower than when they viewed images of the sky or the chair. Interestingly, researchers noted that subjects reported feeling a positive emotional response to the sky image and the flower image, but only the flower image significantly decreased blood pressure. They concluded that viewing a flower image “provides psychological and physiological recovery effects after stress.”

While the study did not examine the underlying mechanisms, researchers pointed to Attention Restoration Theory as a possible explanatory framework. The theory states that natural vistas (like plants or landscapes) catch a person’s attention with minimal effort, allowing the viewer to free themself from stressful thoughts and memories. Cognitively, this works similarly to many distractions, and results in a reduction of blood pressure and stress-associated sympathetic activity.

These findings are corroborated by a review published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2019, which analyzed the findings of 37 studies and articles regarding the physiological effects of viewing nature. The authors collected a number of studies that found both viewing images of flowers and being exposed to real flowers can lower heart rate and reduce sympathetic nerve activity.

Flowers and Cortisol levels

One of the key physiological markers of stress is cortisol. In studies, researchers often use salivary cortisol levels as a measure of stress and to assess the response of the endocrine system. One of the experiments conducted for the aforementioned JoEP study was a measure of subjects’ salivary cortisol levels after viewing a flower image.

Once again, researchers recruited a cohort of 32 subjects who viewed a series of negative images, followed by a flower image or a mosaic of fragments of the flower image. Research has shown that there is a lag between experiencing stress and cortisol response, with cortisol levels increasing gradually and peaking roughly 10-30 minutes after a stressful event. In light of this, researchers took saliva samples 17-20 minutes and 35-38 minutes after the image presentation. 

They found that viewing the flower image, but not the mosaic image, significantly decreased salivary cortisol levels in the recovery phase of the experiment. The finding suggests that we don’t have to view real flowers—images of flowers also bring a positive effect to the endocrine system, hastening recovery following a psychologically stressful experience. 

The finding aligns with research conducted by the University of North Florida’s Department of Public Health, published in 2018, which found that women who received or lived with flowers had significantly lower levels of daily stress. 

Flowers’ impact on neural activity 

Finally, the JoEP study also measured the effect of viewing flowers on brain activity, using MRI scans of 17 participants, who viewed negative images, images of flowers, mosaics of fragments of the flower image, and control images. Given that stress is known to activate the limbic regions of the brain, particularly the amygdala, researchers focused on these areas.

When subjects viewed the flower image, there was a decrease in the activation of the amygdala–hippocampus area, suggesting that the image was helpful in attenuating negative emotions. Researchers concluded that the presence of flowers could help alleviate negative emotions or reduce negative cardiovascular effects in patients with psychological stress.

A study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine in 2017 came to a similar conclusion. For that study, researchers monitored a cohort of 15 individuals for the physiological impact of viewing a bouquet of 25 fresh red roses. They found that viewing roses significantly decreased levels of oxy-hemoglobin in subjects’ right prefrontal cortex, as well as decreased other sympathetic nervous activity including HRV.

There you have it: Bringing flowers home isn’t just a sentimental gesture. Evidence suggests that they have therapeutic qualities and can aid recovery.

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