Discover the healing benefits of forest bathing

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forest-bathing(NaturalHealth365)  Two and a half years after its onset, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacted an undeniable physical, emotional, social, and economic toll on the lives of millions of people around the world.  But, as with every tragic event, there are silver linings.  One of these could be the surge of interest in using mindfulness techniques and nature-based therapies – such as forest bathing – to promote psychological and physical healing.

Known as Shinrin-yoku in Japan, where this calming practice is considered a therapeutic technique, forest bathing involves spending meditative time in a natural woodland atmosphere.  The concept of forest bathing appears to be “catching on” in other countries, with new British research examining the effects of nature exposure on U.K. citizens during the 2020 lockdown.  Let’s look at some of forest bathing’s science-backed gifts to health.

Japanese health practitioners blaze a therapeutic trail by prescribing forest bathing

Forest bathing is not only accepted in Japan but is recognized as a legitimate clinical therapy, with doctors often prescribing it for stressed-out patients.  According to the Forest Bathing Institute, there are now over 70 designated “healing forests” across the nation.  Dr. Qing Li and his team at the prestigious Nippon Medical School has helmed much of the forest bathing research.

Dr. Li and other proponents of forest bathing maintain that it can reduce blood pressure, improve heart health, lower blood sugar levels, promote healthy weight, and decrease cortisol levels, the “stress hormone.”  But the benefits don’t stop there.  According to Dr. Li, forest bathing can also improve mood, aid concentration, promote restful sleep and enhance creativity.

Exposure to natural spaces promotes happiness and wellbeing

In “The People and Nature Survey for England: Adult Data,” investigators focused on ways that exposure to natural spaces – such as parks, woodlands, farmlands, and rivers – affected people during the 2020 lockdown in the UK.  While the researchers acknowledged that the study was small, the conclusions were dramatic – and meaningful.  The team found that exposure to these natural spaces improved participants’ positive emotions, lessened mood disturbances, and even increased compassion.

Among other findings, the researchers learned that about 40 percent of adults reported having spent more time outside since the advent of the 2020 pandemic restrictions.  An overwhelming 85 percent said that being in nature made them happy.  And, those who had visited natural spaces in the week before the survey (about half of the participants) reported being significantly happier than those who hadn’t!  However, the researchers found disturbing inequities in people’s ability to access nature.  People were less likely to have visited a natural space in the last 14 days if they were living in an area of high deprivation, had a low income, had a lower educational level, or were unemployed.

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Additional studies support forest bathing to relieve stress and support overall wellness

In a 2020 review published in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, researchers explored the effects of forest bathing on middle-aged adults with hypertension – and concluded that forest bathing was “effective” at reducing blood pressure.  They also credited forest bathing with lowering pulse rate, improving cardiac-pulmonary parameters, inducing a positive mood, reducing anxiety, and improving quality of life.  (Whew! That’s quite an array of health bonuses!)

Furthermore, they found that even a single session of forest bathing could induce short-term benefits.  In a separate analysis of literature published just last month in the International Journal of Environmental Health and Research, the authors evaluated 16 systematic reviews and concluded that the “best available evidence supports the use of forest bathing as a complementary practice for the promotion of psychophysical well-being.”

Trees “exhale” beneficial plant chemicals

Trees and plants in natural areas release natural airborne chemicals known as phytoncides.  Inhaling these is thought to be at the heart of forest bathing’s benefits.  Phytoncides, which help protect plants against harmful insects and disease, are antibacterial and antifungal and are believed to boost immunity in humans by increasing the amount of the body’s natural killer cells.

Many researchers believe that phytoncides can even help protect against cancer.  The trees thought to be highest in phytoncide release are evergreens, such as pine, fir, spruce, and cedar (this may explain why pine-scented forest air is so invigorating).  If you don’t have access to pine trees, never fear – phytoncides are also produced by a wide variety of plants and trees, including oak, locust, and mangrove trees.  (By the way, phytoncides are also produced by herbs and spices such as garlic, onion, and rosemary).

Other factors that make forest bathing beneficial include higher oxygen content in the air, the absence of jarring, stressful industrial noise, and the therapeutic benefit of being unplugged – if only for an hour or two – from technology.  (Pro tip: You can make forest bathing even more immersive and promote mindfulness by involving other senses: feeling the rough bark of the trees, listening to the birdsong, noting the sensation on the skin of sun and shadow.)

Whether you’re hiking in a pine forest in the Pacific Northwest, wandering under palm and mangrove trees in southern Florida, or strolling in a wooded park in the heartlands, you will be taking advantage of nature’s therapeutic gifts.  As Dr. Qing Li puts it, “When you connect to nature … you begin to draw on the vast array of benefits the natural world provides.”  Happy forest healing!

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