Who knew that exposure to nature could provide so many therapeutic benefits to the human body and mind? The Japanese did. Shinrin-yoku or ‘forest bathing’ is the epitome of embracing the healing power of nature.
Through sensory immersion in the forest or in other nature-dense locations, our ancient physiology is re-tuned to the healing rhythms of the natural world, with remarkable results.
The piling scientific evidence on the benefits of forest bathing is also compelling. With stress, anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease and chronic illness on the rise in urban areas, could this free form of therapy be the turning point for modern ills?
M. Amos Clifford seems to think so. The founder of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs may be slightly biased, however, he also reminds us that humans are an intrinsic part of the natural world and that forests are not just another consumable resource that exists solely for the improvement of our wellbeing. Rather, Clifford encourages reciprocity by acknowledging the gifts provided by the forest and offering gratitude or a gesture in return (Clifford, 2018 p.59).
So how can our relationship with the forest improve our health?
As our cells are exposed to stress from every angle in modern life, a much-needed reprieve can be found amongst the trees. Chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight response) has been linked increased risk of chronic illness and mortality (J.J., N.A., D.K., & G.E., 2018). To counter this, forest bathing has been shown to activate the rest, digest and repair state (Kobayashi, Song, Ikei, Kagawa, & Miyazaki, 2015). Further, in combination with cognitive behaviour therapy, forest bathers reported improved quality of life and reduced feelings of anxiety (Kim, Chung, Lim, Woo, & Sung, 2011). A more objective measure of stress is the analysis of salivary cortisol, levels of which were reduced in the forest bather group compared to city dwellers (Kim et al., 2011).
Enhancing the immune system function
Following a forest bathing trip, levels of natural killer cells in bathers were significantly increased compared to the urban control group (Tsao et al., 2018). Natural killer cells levels are an important marker of immune system function, carrying out the targeted destruction of cells that have been infected by viruses or modified by tumour cells (Tsao et al., 2018).
How to bathe:
Clothing is optional. Just kidding, forest bathing isn’t THAT out there, although hugging a tree is encouraged. Forest bathing is different from hiking, in that there is no destination. Some key tips for your first forest bathe:
- Set an intention, or a question to the forest before you begin. Walk into the forest (or any bushland/park) a little way and then consciously select your starting point.
- At the starting point, slowly become aware of all your senses. How does what you can smell, hear, see, touch and taste make you feel? Take your time.
- Leave your phone at home. Avoid all distractions, including talking, unless it is to comment on what your senses are detecting.
- Spend 1-2 hours this way, in the same area. Mindfulness, not distance, is the aim.
- Respect the forest – leave it in a better condition than which you came.
Clifford, M.A., 2018, Your guide to Forest Bathing, Experience the Healing Power of Nature, p.59, Conari press, Newburyport, MA 01950
J.J., C., N.A., T., D.K., M., & G.E., M. (2018). Affective reactivity to daily stress and 20-year mortality risk in adults with chronic illness: Findings from the National Study of Daily Experiences. Health Psychology, 37(2), 170–178. https://doi.org/10.1037/hea0000567
Kim, W., Chung, E.-J., Lim, S.-K., Woo, J.-M., & Sung, J. (2011). The Effect of Cognitive Behavior Therapy-Based “Forest Therapy” Program on Blood Pressure, Salivary Cortisol Level, and Quality of Life in Elderly Hypertensive Patients. Clinical and Experimental Hypertension, 34(1), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.3109/10641963.2011.618195
Kobayashi, H., Song, C., Ikei, H., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y. (2015). Analysis of Individual Variations in Autonomic Responses to Urban and Forest Environments. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/671094
Tsao, T. M., Tsai, M. J., Hwang, J. S., Cheng, W. F., Wu, C. F., Chou, C. K., & Su, T. C. (2018). Health effects of a forest environment on natural killer cells in humans: an observational pilot study. Oncotarget, 9(23), 16501–16511. https://doi.org/10.18632/oncotarget.24741
Alexandra (Lexie) McPhee is an Endeavour College of Natural Health Alumni and qualified, practising Naturopath. Her special interests include writing, communication with the natural world, the history of medicinal plant use and creating her own herbal oils and salves.
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