Forest bathing is all the rage in Japan! The Japanese term for this practice is “shinrin-yoku,” which roughly translates as taking in, or bathing in, the forest’s atmosphere. The basic idea is that simply being in the forest has curative and restorative properties. It’s medicine for the physical body and it feeds the soul as well.
How Does Forest Bathing Work?
Anyone can practice forest bathing, on your own, or with family and friends. The first step is to find a forest that is free from the trappings of city life. Ideally, this would be a forest that is far enough outside the city that you don’t hear traffic noise and the air is clean. Walk slowly through the forest and breathe deeply from your diaphragm as you do so. Don’t think of this experience as a “hike” where you have to follow a certain path and get from point A to point B. Instead, allow yourself to meander and just be spontaneous on where you go and how you interact with nature.
Allow the forest to fill all five of your senses. Allow the aroma of the forest to infuse into every fiber of your being. Explore the colors and patterns of nature and how they affect your mood. Focus on the soundscape of the forest… the bird song, the rustle of the wind in the trees, and other nature sounds until you are able to clear your mind of all your stresses and reset your physiology. The stress hormone, cortisol, will begin to drop as you do so and you will feel much more relaxed. In this open relaxed state, your body will be able to respond better to the medicine that Gaia provides to your physical being and spirit (see next section).
There is Scientific Proof That Forest Bathing Works
There is actually quite a body of scientific literature proving the restorative and curative effects of forest bathing. It turns out that trees release chemicals into the air called phytoncides that can actually heal the body and prevent disease. These same airborne chemicals can lift your mood, mend emotional trauma, improve sleep patterns, and strengthen the immune system.
In 2007, the results of a forest bathing research study were published in the International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology. This study and others like it caused quite a stir in the natural health community because it showed that forest bathing could actually help prevent cancer!
Twelve busy professionals were released from work and taken on a three-day, two-night trip, where they spent time each day walking in the forest. Their natural killer cells (NK cells) were counted before the trip and on the second and third days after the walks in the forest. NK cells are known to be able to kill the cancerous cells in a tumor. After walks in the forest, these men had elevated numbers of NK cells, as well as the perforin and granzymes that NK cells inject into cancer cells to kill them! Other studies have found that forest bathing increases NK cells for more than a week after a walk through the forest so shinrin-yoku also seems to have a positive lasting effort.
What Happened to Dr. Gupta When He Went Forest Bathing For the First Time?
Dr. Sanjay Gupta is CNN’s chief medical reporter. He’s also a highly skilled western trained surgeon who is open-minded to exploring medical practices outside of western medicine. In a series called, “Chasing Life,” Dr. Gupta explores various ways that people can live longer and happier lives. In one episode, Dr. Gupta traveled to Japan and interviewed people who are using shinrin-yoku to relieve their stress, prevent disease, and restore their health. Japan actually ranks as one of the most “stressed out” societies in the world. This is largely due to their exceptionally long work hours and intense work ethic.
There is constant societal pressure in Japan to continue the economic prosperity that has been built over in the decades since the last world war. With each generation, this pressure seems to increase so the Japanese people, especially working-age people, are always looking for ways to destress. Forest bathing seems to be one of the most popular. While in Japan, Dr. Gupta went forest bathing himself with a group of Japanese, some of whom practice forest bathing on a regular basis. The entire group took their vital signs and blood pressure before they started and then again afterward to compare. Dr. Gupta’s blood pressure had dropped, as had the blood pressure of several others. Their cortisol levels dropped too, as measured from before and after saliva samples. Very impressive!
If you’re thinking that Dr. Gupta’s group results were an aberration, think again! In 2010, a study was published in the peer-reviewed journal of Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine entitled, “The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan.” In this study, 280 participants alternated, between successive days, a walk through a forest and through a city. When the data was analyzed, walks through the forest were shown to lower cortisol, decrease blood pressure, lower pulse rate, increase parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity. Walks through cities did not have these effects.
What to Do If You Can’t Find a Forest to Bathe In
Forest bathing is actually part of larger natural health and spiritual movement called “nature therapy.” Some people also call it “ecotherapy.” If you don’t live near a forest, don’t fret it. Find another place in nature that relaxes you and bathe in those surroundings.
If you don’t have trees in your yard, you can look for a local park full of trees. Some people find a leisurely walk by the ocean, stream, or lake provides a healing therapeutic effect. You can also practice “garden therapy” by simply planting a garden and tending it daily. Broadly speaking, “pet therapy” could also be classified as nature therapy. Petting a dog has been shown to lower the heart rate and cat purrs can heal wounds and shrink tumors!
Forest bathing for health and spiritual purposes may seem like a new practice. However, this may be another case of “everything old is new again!” In the late nineteenth century, German physicians established a “sanatorium” in a German pine forest to heal people of tuberculosis. The results were so successful, another tuberculosis sanatorium was established in the Adirondack Forest in New York state. There were rumors circulating among doctors of the time that the pine forest contained a secret chemical that cured disease. Looks like the rumors were true!
If you want to live to be a ripe ol’ age… and be healthier and happier while you’re at it… give yourself the gift of forest bathing or nature therapy as often as possible.