How Our Forests Can Heal Us A national holiday, a few friends, a serious hike in the Santa Monica mountain range. It was a cold day for Southern California, windy and overcast. With the canopy of the trees above us, we could still feel the short afternoon drizzle of rain. Fresh smells like pine and the perfume of flowers, and the sounds of the wind through the trees heightened as we urban dwellers stomped on twigs and leaves. I deeply breathed in the silence. The freedom from cell phones, the sounds of the forest, and the fresh air made me feel refreshed and alive.
Close your eyes and imagine a great big forest. What do you see? How does it smell? Does this visualization affect how you feel in the present moment?
Thirty-five years ago, Tomohide Akiyama of Tokyo asked himself these same questions, then set out to find the answers. He discovered the science beyond the feel-good powers of the forest. He found that the forest heals.
Modern Life is Lived Indoors The average American spends a whopping 93 percent of their life indoors. We visit National Parks about 20 percent less than we did in the 1980s, and our cultural shift away from nature-based recreation means we spend more time in front of a screen. Eighty percent of Americans live in urban areas, which means many of us don’t have easy access to the healing forests.
These sobering statistics have led author and nature advocate Richard Louv to coin the term Nature Deficit Disorder. Because our alienation from nature, we now have higher rates of illness, dulled senses, and suffer from severe attention difficulties. Our healing forests are more important now than ever before.
The Concept of Forest Bathing The Japanese concept of Shinrin-yoku, meaning “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing,” is about diving into the forest with all our senses. A forest bath is simple – time spent among the trees with no distractions. No need for a destination, no need for any effort on your part. Just you being present with the healing smells, sounds, and sensations of the forest.
Forest bathing gives us many benefits:
including a boost in immune system functions
reduced blood pressure
improved ability to focus
and improves your sleep.
When you breathe in the woods, you are inhaling a cocktail of anti-inflammatory, tumor-preventing, neuroprotective, and immune-boosting substances released by plants.
One of these substances is called terpenes, which are emitted from leaves, pine needles, tree trunks and bark, bushes, herbs, mushrooms, mosses, and ferns. These terpenes help us deal with stress by lowering our cortisol levels. They enhance our natural killer cells, the cells that help fight diseases such as cancer.
Those who spend one day in the forest will have more natural killer cells in their blood for seven days. Those who are in the woods for two or three days have elevated levels for another 30 days. It’s incredible to think that we get these long-lasting health benefits simply by existing in the woods. We don’t have to go on a trail run or rigorous hike (though those things are great too); just breathing and being in communion with trees is enough.
The History of Forest Bathing In the early 1980s, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries coined the term Shinrin-yoku — which translates roughly as forest bathing.
Tomohide Akiyama of Tokyo noticed that spending time in the forest affects how he felt in the present moment. He set out to figure out why, and reported back that the act of spending hours in the forest using only your five senses can improve overall well-being.
Mr. Akiyama’s claims inspired scientists at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo to study Shinrin-yoku in a laboratory setting. By comparing cerebral activity from a person in an urban setting to that same person in a forest environment, they found that forest bathing did indeed relax the body and slow brain activity. Those who engaged in two to four hours of forest bathing for two days also inhaled antimicrobial compounds emitted by trees and plants. This resulted in an increase in white blood cell activity by 40 percent, and a follow-up revealed that the body retained a 15 percent increase in these cells over the course of a month.
As the health benefits of Shinrin-yoku spread, so did the research. In Korea, scientists began studying the effect of forest bathing on severe depression. Researchers engaged patients in psychotherapy sessions outdoors and found reduced cortisol (stress) levels, improved heart rate, and reduced overall depressive symptoms. All of this led to a remission rate that was 61 percent higher in the forest-bathing group than the group that used medication alone.
Today, the Japanese government officially recognizes Shinrin-yoku as a healthful practice and has designated part of its forestland as forest therapy grounds. Forest Bathing is officially a recognized method of preventing disease and supplementing treatment in Japan. The National Institute of Public Health of Japan promotes Shinrin-yoku, universities study it, and hospitals use it as an Rx.
So it might be time to take a break from your phone and computer, and from all the clutter and noise of social media. Take a hike alone. Take a hike with family, with friends, and soak in the healing powers of the forest.