Forest bathing: it's good for you. Now I'm not talking about skinny-dipping or luxuriating in your fancy outdoor shower (also awesome and highly recommended), but the unique health benefits of walking among the forests in nature. In Japan, the practice is called Shinrin-Yoku (forest bathing) and a growing body of research shows that it's amazing for our overall health. We also don't need a bunch of research to tell us this. We can feel it.
Though I live in a big city and love it, nothing refreshes me more than a healthy dose of time crunching along in the forest. Josh and I have been plotting and planning to one day live deep in the forest. I'd spend my days practicing yoga, doing macrame in caftans and cooking awesome things from scratch, while Josh tries to simultaneously play the ukulele while foraging for wild herbs and creating medicinal tinctures. Come to think of it, we're almost there-- just need the forest!
For now, we binge on our nature cravings during the summer at the cottage in Haliburton, otherwise known as Canada's paradise. We collect spring water and swim in the cool water and walk in the woods and hunting for chaga, reishi, and other treasures.
Given that humans lived in nature for centuries, it makes sense that the natural world and forest bathing would provide us with built-in health benefits. As we've constructed big cities and increasingly rely on technology, many of us don't get the opportunity to thrive in nature. But there are many, many reasons why we should.
The Health Benefits of Forest Bathing
Forest Bathing Boosts and Strengthens Immunity
Natural Killer Cells (or NK cells) are an essential part of our immune systems that help to control tumours and infections. Research on forest bathers shows forest bathing and nature bathing supports and increases NK cell activity.
This study of men who spent several hours walking in the forest for two days showed a 50% increase in NK cell activity, leading researchers to conclude that forest bathing can have anti-cancer properties. But don't feel left out ladies - this study of women who spent a three-day field trip in the forest found that forest bathing also measurably increased blood levels of NK cells, and that the forest's effects lasted for an entire week.
Forest Bathing Supports the Nervous System + Reduces Stress
Stress has its beneficial elements, but for the most part as a culture we are besieged by chronic stress that damages our health. Could the solution be a walk in the forest?
In this field experiment in 24 forests across Japan, researchers compared markers in participants who walked in forests versus those who walked in the city. They discovered that the forest bathers had lower salivary levels of cortisol (one of our main stress hormones), greater parasympathetic nervous system activity (our resting state) and lower sympathetic nervous system activity (our 'fight or flight' response) than the city strollers.
Other studies like this one report that spending time in the forest reduces levels of depression, fatigue, anxiety and confusion, and people feel less stressed and more calm, comfortable and refreshed.
These studies also measured blood pressure and pulse rate - both of which were lowered after forest bathing, another indication that it promotes relaxation.
Forest Bathing Benefits Cardiovascular + Respiratory Health
As I just mentioned, forest bathing lowers blood pressure and heart rate, two major players in cardiovascular health. The research shows that forest bathing not only benefits the cardiovascular health of healthy adults, but also can act as a preventative or treatment for those who may be at risk.
In one study of middle-aged men who were on the cusp of high blood pressure, scientists measured blood pressure, cortisol and urine after the men spent two hours in the forest. The results? Blood pressure, urinary levels of adrenaline and salivary cortisol levels were all lowered, plus the men reported they felt more calm and relaxed. The researchers concluded that forest bathing could be a potential treatment for high blood pressure and prevent hypertension. There have been similar results in middle-aged females, too.
Further research on elderly patients with hypertension discovered that forest bathing can reduce hypertension and inhibit inflammation.
Also, another study of patients with COPD compared a group who spent time in the forest to a group that hung out in the city. The forest group had lower levels of pro-inflammatory chemicals and stress hormones.
Forest Bathing CAN REDUCE Pain
Many common disease involve chronic pain. Studies of patients with chronic pain show that forest bathing can reduce both physiological levels of pain that can be measured as well as people's self-reported feelings of pain. Patients also note that the forest reduces depression and improves their quality of life.
Forest Bathing Improves Your Mood
When people feel relaxed and calm, it's no surprise that they feel happier too.
Studies on Japanese males, middle-aged females and university students who spent time in the forest all showed an overwhelmingly increase in the participants' positive feelings and a decrease in negative feelings. The forest bathers felt happier and more vigorous, too.
Why is Forest Bathing so Powerful?
- The fresh and unpolluted air. City living can expose us to many dangerous toxins and air pollution. Getting out of the city and into the forest allows us to breathe in the fresh air and gives our bodies a break.
- The smells of the forest. Trees and plants have powerful scents - many of which are distilled into essential oils. Research shows that scents can be calming, relaxing, soothing and even reduce blood pressure and heart rate.
- The sounds of the birds/wildlife. No one has 'screaming neighbours' or 'raccoons fighting' on their sound wave machines. There's a reason we like to listen to birds chirping or waves crashing - it's calming and relaxing.
- The visual stimulation. Research indicates that viewing nature and wood specifically can calm us down.
- The exercise. Walking in the forest, even if it's at a slow pace, is exercise. And exercise is great for our physical and mental health.
- The peace and relaxation. If we're in the forest, we're not working, doing household chores like cleaning, tapping away at the computer or scrolling on our phones.
Another thing that is remarkable about forest bathing is it doesn't just address one aspect of our health. In all of the studies I mentioned, participants didn't experience a single benefit on its own - lower blood pressure, lower cortisol, etc. When one positive thing happened, it became a cascade and multiple body systems jumped on board too. I think this speaks to the powerful, holistic effect of forest bathing. While it's not a panacea, it's a powerful health tool that is free and simple to do.
Can't Find a Forest? Try This Instead.
While forest bathing is immensely beneficial, research shows that other types of nature therapy can reduce stress, boost mood and improve our cardiovascular health, including:
- Find an urban park. Going for a walk in a city park lowers stress levels, blood pressure and heart rate.
- Garden. Create a green space in your yard or on your balcony - this can soothe the nervous system.
- Get tactile. Take your shoes off and walk in the grass, or touch flowers and plants.
- Look at flowers and plants. This can help improve your mood and relaxation.
- Smell plants. Inhale the power of plants outside in a garden or through essential oils.
I hope you are inspired to get out in nature today!