Forest Bathing: Mother Nature’s guide to wellbeing

Published – SmartyPants Blog – April 2018
Author – Caroline Fontein

Are you stressed? Have you considered forest bathing? It might just be one of the easiest and cheapest ways to reduce stress and anxiety while increasing your energy and enhancing your overall sense of wellbeing.

The best part is, all you have to do is free your inhibitions and let Mother Nature take the lead. That being said, swimsuits aren’t recommended. In fact, wearing one would only be a detriment to your experience in more ways than one. After all, who wants to walk in a forest while wearing only their bikini, trunks or nothing at all? (No judgement if you you do, just remember to slather on the bug spray.)

For the rest of us, the good news is that this path to wellbeing is less about stripping down to your skivvies (or nothing at all) and more about peeling back the layers to your inner psyche. From Japan, forest bathing, or shirin-yoku, means immersing yourself (bathing) in a forest atmosphere to absorb the many reported healing benefits of being in the woods.

Stop and smell the Phytoncides

Trees emit oils for protection from germs and insects. These oils are called phytoncides, and inhaling them can help our immune systems. Studies have found that they can also lower our heart and blood pressure and reduce stress hormones and depression while increasing energy.

Japan officially introduced shirin-yoku in 1982, to urge citizens to make use of the country’s 3,000 miles of natural forest for their therapeutic qualities. Scientific studies into forest bathing began in 1990, and it has since become an official treatment for preventive care and healing in Japanese medicine.

Research was championed by physician Qing Li, chairman of the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine and author of “Forest Medicine.” His newest book, “Forest Bathing,” will be out in April 2018. He also helped found the Forest Therapy Study Group.

How’s your natural killer (cell) activity?

Walking in the woods can help. Natural Killer cells (also called NK cells) are a type of white blood cell and part of your immune system. They play a major role in rejecting or attacking tumors and virally-infected cells. You can think of them as your body’s internal police for fighting against any unwanted intruders.

Beginning in 2005, Li conducted several studies on healthy male and female Japanese individuals to investigate the effects of forest bathing trips on human immune function, specifically NK cells.

The subjects took a three-day forest bathing trip. Li took blood and urine samples during and after the trip to determine if their NK cells showed increased activity after exposure to phytoncides. They did. The increased activity lasted for more than 30 days after the trip, suggesting that taking a forest bathing trip once a month would enable individuals to have a higher level of NK activity. Studies have found that people with higher NK cells may lead to lower incidences of cancer among other benefits.

Along with increased NK cell activity, Li’s studies found that forest bathing had significant positive effects on his subjects’ nervous systems. They experienced reduced stress hormone production and lowered blood pressure. In POMS (Profile of Mood States) studies, subjects showed a significant decreased in their scores for anxiety, depression, and anger.

Li’s studies also identified that where you walk matters. As a control, he conducted tests similar to the ones mentioned above. However, instead of spending time in the forest, his subjects walked in a city. These subjects did not experience any of the same results as those trekking with the trees, suggesting that maintaining a connection with nature may be the path to good health.

Shirin Yoku

Pathway to wellbeing

The objective when forest bathing is to stimulate all of your senses while in nature. It’s not about vigorous outdoor activity. For this practice, you need only be in the present, take some deep breaths, and enjoy what’s around you. Of course, you can always consult an official forest therapist guide. The U.S. Association of Nature & Forest Therapy plans to certify about 250 new ones this year to support this growing trend.

However, here are some self-guided steps you can take on your next woodland excursion. They seem simple enough, but amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life, sometimes it’s easy to forget to acknowledge our surroundings:

  1. Relish the view

    See, it’s easy. In an urban setting (or just trying to get your kids out the door in the morning) there are many stressors that demand your attention. In contrast, natural settings prompt involuntary focus where we can be open and relaxed without having to worry as much. Take some time, and soak in the sights.

  2. Find the melody

    Nature’s symphony is good for the soul. According to Li, it’s important to expose ourselves to the “cognitive quiet,” found in nature, to calm our frazzled thoughts and clear confusion. The best part is all you have to do is listen.

  3. Take a whiff

    Treat your walk in the woods like an aromatherapy session. Along with the trees, other plants, and soil release healthy smells that can add to your well-being. Just take some deep breaths, and inhale the earthy aromas.

  4. Embrace your biophilia

    Li’s studies indicate that the affectionate act of literally connecting with nature, is good for us. In terms of biophilia, it’s also innate. Biophila (popularized by Edward O. Wilson in his 1984 book of the same name) suggests that humans have a biological urge to connect with nature, and this is the perfect time to embrace it, literally. Reach out and touch your surroundings. Maybe you’ll even want to take your shoes off and feel the earth beneath your feet or hug a tree. Don’t worry, it’s all bark.

The idea that spending time in nature is good for the psyche and your physical health is nothing new. But, acknowledging the science behind it is one more motivation to get moving outdoors, especially with the weather starting to warm up this time of year.

Remember, Mother Nature’s healing tonic works best when taken regularly. Fortunately, getting it, is a walk in the park or woods. Enjoy your forest bathing!

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