In 1982, the Forest Agency of Japan first proposed that ‘forest bathing,’ was good for your health. No, forest bathing is not dragging a bathtub into the woods and having a soak – although that does sound good! Rather it is visiting a forest or wood for relaxation, and gentle recreation, and breathing in the volatile substances from the trees. When did you last forest bathe?
Since 1982, forest bathing (aka ‘forest therapy’ and ‘Shinrin yoku’) has become a cornerstone of preventive health and healing in Japanese medicine. Many research studies, mainly from Japan and South Korea, have looked at how forest bathing creates positive effects. One of the key benefits is that it is seen to improve our immune function by increasing the number and activity of natural killer cells.
Natural Killer Cells
Natural killer (NK) cells are a type of white blood cells that provide a rapid response to viral-infected cells and cancer cells. These immune cells don’t rely on antibodies so are able to produce a much faster immune reaction than other immune cells. They have a tumor immunosurveillance role, directly killing tumor cells. Take a look at this brief video which shows you how they work:
Natural killer cells are therefore of prime importance to destroying cancer cells in our body. Thus we can see that using lifestyle approaches like forest bathing to improve our natural killer cell activity can help in both prevention of cancer – by killing those rogue tumor cells formed everyday – and in the prevention of metastasis of tumors.
One of the factors that has been identified as causing these immune improvements is our breathing-in of phytoncides – the natural chemicals secreted by evergreen trees, such as a-pinen and limonene. The levels of phytoncide in the air seem to correlate with the improvements in immune functioning. If we look back in history, these health effects were recognized then; in the 1800s, many tuberculosis clinics were set up in pine forests. Patients’ outcomes were reported as them having a “forest cure.”
Health benefits of Forest Bathing
In addition to the benefits of increased NK cells and their activity, bathing ourselves in the forest environment has been shown to also:
- reduce blood pressure
- reduce stress
- improve mood
- increase energy
- improve sleep
- support deeper and clearer intuition
- decrease adrenaline levels
- reduce pain
- ease mental fatigue
Incorporating forest bathing into your life
Trees, sunshine, grass, and wildlife all too frequently take a backseat in our busy city or urban lives.
Think back to the last time you were surrounded by nature – maybe a walk when you noticed the fresh, vibrant green of a new leaf, or an insect, or the color of the bark of a tree, or saw a rabbit hop past. These moments of discovery and fascination are spontaneous and effortless kinds of attention, not like the attention we have to use at work or during most of our day. As we follow our curiosity from the leaf to a flower to a butterfly, we relax in an exploration of nature which gives our attention-driven brain a break. The sounds of nature are also important, for example, the calming sound of water helps to balance our hormones. Forest bathing doesn’t involve going for a strenuous hike in the woods; rather, it has a gentleness and awareness to it – a sensory experience.
So consider giving yourself a break, and find some time this week to be in nature. Let that effortless attention and fascination take over. And if you aren’t up for that, try bringing some nature indoors to you – open the windows, look at the trees, listen to the sound of a waterfall on your computer, put a nature screensaver on your computer screen, watch a nature DVD…. Yes, even looking at a scene of a forest has been found to reduce cortisol levels (stress hormone) 13% compared to looking at an urban scene.
For more information on forest bathing, take a look at this Shinrin-yoku website and the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. Many of the research studies are shown on the Association website too. These resources also include information about guides, local walks, and training to become a forest therapist. The walks are short in distance and focus on breathing, relaxing, listening, healing, wandering, and touch.