I recently returned from a restorative trip in one of my favorite places in the world: Sequoia National Park here in California.
I’ve been retreating to this woodsy paradise for years—for vacation, for solitude, for writing, for healing, for meditation, and for recharging—as it offers a space to be completely still.
While there, I vow not to engage in any online activities, nor do I keep a schedule of must-see places or activities.
Rather, I take the time to immerse myself in the natural state of peaceful being—or mindfulness—the forest offers, which gives my analytical brain (and heart) a much-needed break.
I imagine you’ve experienced this peaceful-forest-feeling before too.
There’s just something about the fresh air, the smells, the greenery, the endorphins, and the overall experience of getting “lost” in the woods that rejuvenates us body, mind, and soul.
It’s a feeling most people know but few can fully pinpoint or explain.
Is it the trees? The sounds of the birds? The disconnection from “real life”? The smells? The fresh air?
As it turns out, science has confirmed that all of the above (and more) contribute to “that feeling” we get from being in a forest—the modern term for which is now known as, “forest bathing” or “Shinrin-yoku” in Japanese..
The Recent Discovery And Ancient History Of Forest Bathing For Health and Well-Being
People have been retreating to nature to improve their health since time immemorial.
Even in the very primitive years of conventional medicine, doctors recommended their patients “retreat to the country” to help them recover from serious illness.
And in Traditional Chinese Medicine, the ancient texts reference the importance of harmony with nature and respectful use of the forest and its bounty, to treat and prevent disease.
However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries coined the term “Shinrin-yoku”—which roughly translates to “forest bathing”.
Since then, scientists have presented compelling research about the health benefits of spending time in the woods.
Forest Bathing Is An Incredible Stress Reliever
I mention stress relief first, because you’ll see its implications throughout all the other health benefits listed here.
A variety of studies have shown that time spent forest bathing reduces production of stress hormones, such as cortisol, while boosting anti-stress hormone and neurotransmitter levels like noradrenalin and dopamine1.
This provides a biological explanation for the calm and relaxed feeling one gets after a few hours, days, or weeks spent in the woods.
Forest Bathing Can Improve Your Heart Health
Given the recent warnings about certain blood pressure medications increasing the risk of lung cancer2, the implications of forest bathing to heart health is an important discovery.
This has to do with its stress-relieving benefits, plus specific affects on the blood vessels.
Forest Bathing Can Significantly Boost Your Immunity and Anti-Cancer Protein Levels
The impressive effects of forest bathing on immunity appear to be two-fold.
#1: It reduces stress and takes you away from pollution, both of which are natural immune boosters.
#2: Studies have shown the aromas or essential oils emitted by trees, known as Aromatic Volatile Substances or phytoncides, have incredible immune supportive properties for trees and for humans.
One of the most famous examples of this was recorded in a Japanese study, where researchers tracked the immunity of a group of adults during a 2 night, 3 day “Forest Bathing” (camping) trip.
And the results were amazing!
The group’s natural human natural killer cell and anti-cancer protein activity was notably enhanced for an entire seven days after the trip8.
But could these results possibly be replicated?
To re-test, a follow-up study was done during a one-day forest bathing trip…and the same results ensued: 7 days of enhanced natural killer cell and anticancer protein activity9.
To further test the theory that the forest’s Aromatic Volatile Substances (forest essential oils) contribute to subject’s enhanced immunity, a 2009 study was conducted in which researchers diffused specific forest essential oils into the air of hotel rooms.
And participants still experienced in increase in NK cell activity and reduction in stress hormones10.
With cold and flu season already in full-swing, I highly recommend making forest bathing a regular part of your preventative health rituals.
Forest Bathing Is Good For Your Lungs
It speaks to reason that breathing clean, fresh, oxygen-rich forest air would be good for your lungs.
But the benefits of forest bathing appear to go a step further, by reducing pro-inflammatory cytokines and (you guessed it) stress hormones which can fuel respiratory disease.
In one study11, researchers randomly divided a group of of elderly patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) into two groups; one group was sent to the forest and the other group to an urban setting.
The forest group showed a significant decrease in pro-inflammatory chemicals and stress hormones.
This led to the conclusion that forest bathing benefits elderly COPD patients by reducing stress hormones and lowering inflammation.
And It Can Improve Your Mental Health and Reduce Anxiety and Depression
I’ve been so encouraged by new researching surfacing about the mental health benefits of nature for those battling depression and anxiety. We discussed the benefits of earthing, for example, in a previous post.
And it’s now been proven that trees can have a specific affect on your mood and mental well-being.
Aside from reducing stress (one of the ultimate regulators of mood), forest bathing has been shown in a variety of studies to reduce feelings of depression and anxiety12.
Now, if you are depressed or anxious and the idea of walking through the woods alone is intimidating, I have good news.
Additional studies have shown that simply being in the presence of trees—or any type of green space—also has a positive impact on these conditions13.
So just start one baby step at a time and you will feel the benefits.
How to Start Reaping the Benefits of Forest Bathing Today
- Ideally get to a forest as soon as possible! Walk, hike, camp, chill..enjoy the forest your way. If it is not possible now, consider the additional ideas below.
- Take a walk to your neighborhood or your nearby park and notice the trees and plants and flowers you may have previous walked by without giving much attention to. Take a breath in and notice the smells. Listen to the birds. Allow yourself to be aware of the sights and sounds of nature.
- Go for a hike on a trail close to wear you live, if possible. Even a short hike is a great way to get grounded in the benefits of nature.
- I had an interesting experience I would like to share with you. Here in Santa Monica, there has been a dramatic increase in construction of buildings. I found myself feeling frustrated and focusing on this development as I would drive to the clinic. Then I decided to focus on the trees that did exist on the route instead of the structures, and I noticed that trees and nature started popping out at me. It was a great experience of how important perspective is to how we experience life. You may want to consider virtual forest bathing (when the forest isn’t accessible) by noticing all of the trees, flowers, and other natural beauties that you pass by each day. That blade of grass peeking through the sidewalk is a good reminder that the benefits of nature are there for us if we choose to partake.
May you enjoy the abundance of nature available to you in the least-expected places.