As the last of the leaves are falling, the cooler weather is perfect for hiking through our parks and forests and enjoying the scenery, the fresh air, and the sounds of nature. We seem to know instinctively that a walk in nature or simply sitting in nature generally makes us feel better, but did you know it can also affect our health positively?
The Japanese have a therapeutic practice called Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” which is a short, leisurely trip to a forest for its healing benefits.
A growing body of medical evidence is supporting this practice of “forest medicine.” Early research showed us that having greenplants in a work environment increased productivity, but forest medicine research goes beyond that. Exposure to a forest environment has been shown to reduce stress, improve the immune system, reduce blood pressure, decrease blood glucose levels, improve autonomic nervous function, relax the mind — and even have an anti-cancer effect in the body.
When you visit a forest, you breathe in volatile substances from the trees and plants, called phytoncides. There are many different phytoncides, such as alpha-pinene, beta-pinene and limonene, which have healing properties. Breathing in phytoncides from the forest can decrease stress hormones and may increase immune system function.
Research demonstrates that simply being in a forest environment is relaxing and has stress-relieving effects. In a forest environment, blood pressure and heart rate are significantly lower and heart rate variability improves. It also produces comfortable, calm and refreshed sensations. Salivary cortisol, a stress hormone, is also lower in a forest environment. These physiological changes show that sympathetic nervous activity is lowered and parasympathetic nervous activity is improved, thus reducing stress levels.
Forest medicine can also effectively relax our minds. Research has shown that brain activity is slowed down after only 20 minutes in the forest. Forest medicine also has psychological effects, lowering both hostility and depression, and improving liveliness. In fact, the higher the stress level, the greater the effect of stress reduction.
Walking in a forest can also effectively decrease blood glucose levels in diabetic patients. Research has shown that the forest environment can decrease both blood glucose values and hemoglobin A1C.
The forest environment also significantly improves the immune system, and has shown to have anti-cancer effects. Being in the forest improves an aspect of the immune system called natural killer cells; both the activity and number of these immune cells are increased. It also increases anti-cancer proteins in the body. These effects can last up to seven days after being in the forest.
With all of this evidence supporting the healing effects of forest medicine, make some time for your own forest bathing trip today and see how you feel afterward.
Les Moore holds a master’s of science in Oriental medicine and is a naturopath, medical hydrologist and licensed acupuncturist. He is director, Integrative Medicine, at Clifton Springs Hospital, Ontario County.