Purpose of review: To describe the growing-consensus opinion regarding the contribution of natural processes – ‘nature’ – to human health. Globally, natural environments are becoming smaller and critically degraded because of various human-related factors. Consequently, some of the ‘free’ health benefits nature confers are being lost. This is especially problematic for people in rural areas with limited access to clinical services whose lives depend closely upon nature.
Recent findings: In 2001, an assessment of the world's ‘ecosystems’ was initiated – the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. It explored ecosystem changes and their subsequent effects in various locales on human well being, including health. Global Burden of Disease studies have also revealed the importance of environmental factors to health, in some countries in particular. Not coincidentally, geographic areas in the two research efforts overlap. Despite this, convincing research describing how conserving healthy environments may positively affect human health remains lacking.
Summary: Establishing ecosystem–human health causal linkages via traditional epidemiological approaches is challenging. Innovative research initiatives are beginning to increase our understanding and appreciation of nature's role as a provider of health, rendering conservation potentially a healthcare strategy. Transdisciplinary university teaching is also playing a role in broadening the awareness of these important linkages and developing research skills to meet the challenge.