Benefits of Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing)
Benefits of Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing)
Did you know that the discovery of aspirin can be traced back to a compound found in willow bark – salacin – which has been used for thousands of years to relieve pain? Have you heard about the bark of the Cinchona tree, which contains the same form of quinine that is used to treat malaria?
It’s no secret that many trees have beneficial – sometimes even medicinal – properties, but what if the forests themselves are actually therapeutic, too? That’s the idea behind the practice of forest bathing, and research indicates that it’s true.
What Is Forest Bathing?
In Japanese, shinrin means forest and yoku means bath, so shinrin-yoku is the practice of bathing in the forest atmosphere. In essence, it describes the Japanese practice of letting nature wash over all five senses: smell, touch, sound, sight and even taste. While forest bathing began in Japan in the 1980s, it has recently grown more popular worldwide.
Born in response to high levels of work stress and a spike in rates of autoimmune disease. Forest bathing has become an eco-friendly, healthy antidote to our tech-saturated world.
It turns out that walking and relaxing in this type of immersive experience amongst the trees may offer various health benefits. That’s why forest bathing is also called forest therapy.
Tree Oil (Phytoncides)
If you’ve ever inhaled the warm, woodsy scent of cedar or the fresh, clean scent of pine, you’ve experienced the natural aromatherapy of phytoncides. This distinctive category of woodland-based essential oils is released by trees and plants as part of their defense system.
According to Dr. Qing Li, a physician, professor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, and president of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine:
Trees release phytoncides to protect them from bacteria, insects and fungi. Phyton is Green for ‘plant,’ and cide is ‘to kill.’ Phytoncides are also part of the communication pathway between trees: the way trees talk to each other. The concentration of phytoncides in the air depends on the temperature and other changes that take place throughout the year. The warmer it is, the more phytoncides there are in the air.”
In this study, inhaling tree-derived phytoncides reduced stress hormone levels in both men and women and increased natural killer (NK) cell activity (a vital part of our immune system).
Other research suggests that a particular phytoncide – d-limonene- may have mood lifting effects.
The positive effects of forest bathing are becoming better known. In one recent study, participants who habitually walked through forests showed evidence of lowered blood pressure. Exposure to the tree oil and strolls through the forest may also contribute to reduced anxiety.
Past scientific research found that forest bathers showed evidence of reduced stress hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline in their bodies. Forest bathing has been proven to help those experiencing not just a temporary stressful situation but chronic stress.
Forest therapy was deemed a cost-effective modality that promoted overall psychological well-being and could be used for those experiencing stress and mental health challenges. The results demonstrated a “significant positive correlation between nature, mindfulness, and measures of psychological well-being.”
There is also a substance in soil that we breathe in when we walk in the forest, and which makes us feel happier. This is a common and harmless bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae.
The benefits of Mycobacterium vaccae were discovered almost by accident by Dr. Mary O’Brien, and oncologist at the Royal Marsden Hospital, London. Dr. O’Brien was conducting an experiment to see if injecting patients with lung cancer with M. vaccae would boost their immune systems and help them fight disease. Her experiment found no proof that it did, but she did make an unexpected recovery: an injection of the bacteria ‘significantly improved patient quality of life.’ Her patients reported feeling more positive and having higher energy levels and better cognitive functioning.” – Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness by Dr. Qing Li
How to practice forest bathing
“Forest Bathing” or “Absorbing the Forest Atmosphere.” The practice encourages people to simply spend time in nature — no actual bathing required.
If it’s accessible to you, walking or spending time in a green forested area is associated with greater benefits than time outdoors in an urban (city) environment. Specifically, research suggests that short-term forest viewing and walking has a more significant positive effect on feelings of vigor, vitality, and self-reported recovery.
If it’s not accessible. You could take a trip to a nearby park, your favorite local trail, the beach, or any natural setting. Just be sure to turn off or silence your phone or other devices. The key is to practice mindfulness. That means being present and fully in the moment.
Once you’ve arrived at your destination, take a few deep breaths and center yourself. Focus on what your senses are taking in — whether it’s the scent of clean ocean air or a chorus of chirping birds.
Spend a few moments simply observing your surroundings. Sit and watch how the trees sway in the wind or simply walk around. If you decide to walk, go at a leisurely pace and without a specific destination in mind. It’s important to let your mind and senses explore and indulge.
A good rule of thumb is to practice forest bathing for at least 20 minutes every day. If you don’t have that much time to spare, that’s OK. You can start with a shorter amount of time. Plus, the goal of forest bathing is to relax and detach — the practice shouldn’t feel like a chore. It should be an activity you look forward to and enjoy.
Forest bathing requires a different mindset. You are embarking on more of a leisurely, meditative experience. You are strolling through nature in a forest and taking your time. You are engaging with all of your senses. You are noticing the sensations that appear and how you’re connecting to the natural world.
This process of returning to nature can bring you to a heightened state of sensory awareness and a sense of tranquility. Within minutes of entering a green space, your body relaxes, blood pressure stabilizes, stress hormones decrease, muscle tension decreases, and health benefits kick in.
Benefits of Forest Bathing
Decreasing hormones involved in the stress response (e.g., adrenaline, cortisol)
Decreasing signs of immune activation (e.g., natural killer cells)
Decreasing proteins involved in inflammation (e.g., interleukin-6, interleukin-8)
Enhancing emotional state (e.g., attitude, feelings, psychological recovery)
Improving cardiovascular health markers (e.g., blood pressure, heart rate)
Improving metabolic markers (e.g., triglyceride levels)
Increasing antioxidant activity (e.g., glutathione peroxidase levels, biological antioxidant potential)
Increasing relaxation in the body and brain (e.g., alpha brain waves, beta brain waves)
Choose one (or more) of these activities that are most enjoyable to you:
Stroll through the forest.
Listen to the sound of the wind in the trees, birdsong, leaves rustling, a nearby stream.
Taking in the natural aromatherapy surrounding you.
Run your hands over the rough bark of a tree.
Pick a few evergreen needles, squeeze them in your hand, and inhale their fresh scent (phytoncides)
Watch dappled light dance on the forest floor.
Wade into a stream.
Stretch or do yoga.
Find a comfy spot to sit and take in your surroundings,
Take of your shoes to get the benefits of earthing.