Have you heard about forest bathing, or “shinrin-yoku?” No, it doesn’t involve soap or a bathtub out in the wild, but it just might change your life! Read on to find out just what forest bathing is and what the benefits of forest bathing are. Get ready to be surprised!
Shinrin-yoku, a form of nature therapy that originated in Japan, has finally caught on stateside–but what is this outdoor business all about?
By a forest bath I don’t mean dunking yourself in a tub out in the woods somewhere (though that’s an interesting thought….I think?!?)
What Is Forest Bathing / Shinrin Yoku
“Forest bathing” is the English translation of the Japanese term shinrin yoku.
This practice was developed in the 1980s, and it has become an increasingly important part of Japanese preventive care and therapeutic healing. In fact, the Japanese government has invested in decades of research on the health benefits of forest bathing, and evidence continues to mount that spending time decompressing with a forest bath is incredibly good for us.
As science has borne out that time in nature benefits our health, doctors have begun prescribing forest bathing as an antidote to our unnatural, and not terribly healthy, indoor lives.
If you’re like most Americans, you spend up to 90% of your time indoors and a lot of your day overwhelmed by a too-long to-do list and immense amounts of digital information. You’ve probably felt the impact all that stimuli has on our brains and bodies — we feel crazed, distracted, and jangled much of the time.
It feels bad and it has negative effects on your health as well.
This constant stress leads to all kinds of emotional and physical problems. Our bodies aren’t meant to deal with stress all the time–we need rest.
And studies are showing that some time in nature (especially in the form of forest bathing) appears to be just what the doctor ordered.
Forest bathing (also called tree bathing or Japanese forest bathing) aims to counter a lot of our hurried and stressed lifestyles with quiet, meditative time away from all that overstimulation.
Think of the last time you just sat and gazed out at a sunset or listened to waves crashing on the beach. You probably feel a little more relaxed just remembering or imagining it.
Am I right?
So What Is a Forest Bath?
In essence, a forest bath is an extended period spent quietly experiencing a wooded area, as secluded from the modern, man-made environment as possible. Participants engage all their senses while they notice sights, smells, sounds, feelings, and even tastes (think berries, etc.) of the forest.
Disconnecting from their digital distractions and daily worries while quietly observing plants and animals has a powerful effect on forest bathers’ health and sense of well-being.
10 Forest Bathing Benefits
Japanese forest bathing doesn’t just make you feel good–research shows that it has numerous measurable benefits for your body (source). Studies have looked at the effects of tree bathing and have found it might:
1–Strengthens the Immune System
Japanese studies on males and females from four large companies in Tokyo, Japan, showed a marked increase in NK (Natural Killer) Cells due to forest bathing. What’s really fascinating is that they proved that trips to just anywhere weren’t enough–nature was, in fact, the key. NK Cells attack viruses and even fight cancer,
Also, they showed that the benefits of shinrin yoku lasted about 30 days, so a monthly forest bath could be extremely beneficial for boosting immunity. (source)
2–Supports Healthy Blood Pressure Levels
In a meta study in Japan of 732 participants, forest bathing was shown to reduce blood pressure levels, especially for middle and older-aged participants. (source)
3–Reduces Stress Levels
In the same meta study mentioned above, when 732 participants in Japan participated in forest bathing, it was found that natural environments promote lower amounts of cortisol, reduced pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity. As a result, it seems that research will be dedicated to “forest medicine” that might be used as a preventive medical strategy. (source)
4–Improves Mood and Alleviates Anxiety
In a study of 128 men in Taiwan, changes in autonomic nervous system and emotions were measured after a short forest bathing program.
Many benefits were seen, including reduced scores for “tension-anxiety”, “anger-hostility”, “fatigue-inertia”, “depression-dejection”, and “confusion-bewilderment.” Meanwhile, increased scores were seen for the positive mood subscale of “vigor-activity,” and participants demonstrated significantly lower anxiety levels per the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory. (source, source)
5–Enhances Brain Function and Increases Creativity
Dr. David Strayer found that immersion in nature (and disconnect from technology), led to a pretty remarkable increase of creativity and problem solving by an amazing 50%. (source)
6–Increase NK (killer) cells
This sounds pretty unbelievable but, a Japanese study demonstrated that after a three-day camping trip in the forest, participants averaged a 50 percent increase in NK cell activity. Forest bathing has been scientifically shown to increase immunity, decrease the risk of cancer. (source) (source)
7–Reduce the risk of chronic illness
In a meta analysis of forest bathing studies, a reduced risk of a number of chronic illnesses as the result of forest bathing was noted. Reductions in the prevalence of both diabetes and cardiovascular disease were noted. (source)
8–Cardiovascular and Metabolic Improvements
In a study of 19 men in Japan, forest bathing program significantly reduced pulse rate and also significantly increased vigor while decreasing depression, fatigue, anxiety, and confusion, plus increased concentration of serum adiponectin, which has been connected to healthier metabolic rates. As such, shinrin yoku could have a positive effect on the obesity epidemic. (source)
9–Faster Recovery from Illness
One well known study by Dr. Roger Ulrich, an architect specializing in healthcare building design, showed that even looking at trees through a hospital window increased recovery time for gallbladder surgery patients. (source)
10–Reduction in Asthma and Eczema
It’s possible that being in nature could improve your allergies, asthma, and your skin! In a study of 48 school children, improvements were seen in asthma, and eczema including decreased fractional exhaled nitric oxide (FeNO). (source)
Why Do Forest Baths Work?
Forest Baths don’t necessarily work just because nature is beautiful and peaceful. There really might be more to it than that!
There’s plenty of speculation about exactly how forest baths can affect our bodies this way. Some think it has to do with the fractal patterns of nature, while others point to the compounds given off by trees called phytoncides (source), which like essential oils, can exert powerful influences on our bodies.
This is where things get really interesting.
You already likely have heard about essential oils–those little bottles that are full of strong scents that some use for aromatherapy and some say can be used for therapies. Well, get a load of this.
What Are Phytoncides?
Phytoncides are essential oils that are found in wood and plants, as well as in some fruits and vegetables. Trees actually emit these and it’s thought that they do so to protect themselves from germs and insects.
Phytoncides are found in wood, plants, and some fruit and vegetables, which trees emit to protect themselves from germs and insects (source)
Spices, onion, garlic, tea tree, oak, cedar, locust, pine, and many other plants give off phytoncides. Garlic contains allicin and diallyl disulfide. Sophora flavescens contains sophoraflavanone G. Pine contains alpha-pinene, carene, myrcene, and other terpenes.
More than 5,000 volatile substances defend the surrounding plants from bacteria, fungi and insects. Phytoncides work by preventing the growth of the attacking organism.
Phytoncides actually might prevent disease in plants.
So as it turns out, the forest air (and air around nature in general) doesn’t just smell cleaner and fresher–it’s truly better for you as well.
And of course, unplugging from our overly-busy lives and chilling out for awhile is certainly a piece of the puzzle.
Ready to feel more relaxed, creative, and energetic? Of course, you are!
Here’s how to get started with forest bathing.
Ways to Take a Forest Bath
Guided Forest Bath
One option is to take guided forest walk led by a certified shinrin yoku practitioner and spend hours taking in the forest and learning from someone who can really show you the ropes.
This might seem like a totally new and rare concept to you, but according to The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs, this organization alone, as of the end of 2018 has trained forest therapy guides in 46 countries.
According to their site,
In Forest Therapy, there is a clearly defined sequence of guided events that provides structure to the experience, while embracing the many opportunities for creativity and serendipity offered by the forest and the individual inspiration of each guide.
DIY Forest Bath
Of course, if there isn’t a guide near you, or you would rather a less structured event, you can still tap into the some of the benefits of forest bathing with less investment of time and money.
If you have access to a wooded area, that’s your best bet, but even if you live in a city, you can reap some of the benefits of shinrin yoku in your favorite park. The more immersed in nature you can get, the better, but even your backyard can work if that’s all you can manage.
Forest bath practitioners recommend setting aside several hours for a forest bath when possible, but note that even 15 quiet minutes in nature can benefit you greatly.
How to Take a Forest Bath
1. Find a quiet spot as removed from noise as you can find.
Turn off that cell phone–no photos till you’re done!
The more trees the better, but if all you’ve got is a patch of grass, go for it.
The name of the game is stillness. You’re aiming for quiet, mindful experiencing of your surroundings, so leave that power walk for another time.
2. Engage as many of your senses as you can.
When we allow ourselves to sit and focus our attention, we often notice small details that we’d otherwise miss. Look at the shapes of leaves and rocks, watch insects flitting from flower to flower. You’ll probably be surprised at how much you’ve never noticed before.
When we’re not wearing earbuds or bombarded by street noise, we can pay attention to the soft rustle of leaves or the sounds of streams or bird songs wafting through the woods.
Use your nose to discover the smells of different leaves and flowers. You can even scoop up a handful of dirt and sniff it as well.
Pay attention to the breeze on your skin, the heat of the sun, and the cool of the shade. Run your fingers over rocks, bark, and leaves. (Just be sure you know what you’re touching so you don’t inadvertently touch plants that can cause a reaction, like poison ivy or wild parsnip.)
If you’ve done your research or have a good field guide, you might nibble an edible flower like a wild violet or a leaf to engage your sense of taste as well. But don’t eat anything without first verifying it’s safe to eat, OK?
Guided walks often include teas brewed from foraged plants, so you could pack yourself a thermos with some spruce tea if you wanted to replicate the experience. (It’s delicious, by the way!)
If you want to taste without foraging, you can let the breeze or some raindrops (or even snowflakes!) land in your mouth.
Side note–with the rising number of Lyme Disease cases, you might want to read up on Tick Prevention before your first shinrin yoku experience. You for sure don’t want to wade through tall grass and end up getting Lyme!
Mini Forest Bath Breaks
What if you just can’t do a full forest bath? You can still benefit!
Even if you don’t have hours to spare, shorter nature breaks can also have significant impacts on your health. In fact, studies have shown that even short bursts of exposure to natural have beneficial effects on health. Spend a half hour a few times a week, or even try ten minutes every day and see how it affects you.
One of the practices forest guides encourage is called place-tending, which is returning to the same natural space near to where you live or work to observe its changes over time. This practice is said to encourage a strong connection to nature that in turn affects your whole life.
A retreat in your garden that you can visit daily or several times per week and let your mind relax in may have a powerful effect on your well-being.
Can You Take a Forest Bath in Winter?
Yes, you can. Even though it might be freezing cold outside, you can still get outdoors to soak in some of the healthful goodness of the outdoors.
Bundle up, take a walk–or drive to a park or nature-filled place nearby and spend however much time you can handle. Your body and mind will thank you for it!
Your to-do list, social media, cleaning, and yes, even health pursuits might seem to be constantly calling you do get more done and dive in intensely, but the forest is calling you too.
It’s calling you to take a forest bath, slow down, and enjoy all that nature has to offer.
Will you answer the call?
So how ‘bout it?
If you’ve been staring at this screen awhile, why not unplug
and rejuvenate yourself with a forest bath?
Susannah is a freelance health and environmental writer obsessed with making our world and ourselves healthier and greener. She blogs at HealthyGreenSavvy, where she shares super-practical ways to eat well, reduce exposure to toxins, and shrink our ecological impact.
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