Where do you go when you need space to breathe? Or a moment of calm? Or some fresh air? When you close your eyes and think about a place that provides peace, beautiful smells, sights, and sounds, what do you picture?
For me — and many others — I picture the green and great outdoors. Tree-lined paths, the sound of bird song, and the smell of nature. It brings a sense of inner peace that I’ve never found in the concrete, urban world.
In today's fast-paced environment, many of us are constantly searching for ways to improve our well-being, find moments of calm, and balance in our lives. Not to mention improve our physical health too.
One practice that has gained popularity in recent years is a form of nature therapy originating from Japan known as "Shinrin-yoku", which translates to “forest bathing” in English.
Forest bathing has benefits for both physical and mental health. Let's look at how you can incorporate this calming practice into your self-care routine, starting today.
What is Forest Bathing?
Forest bathing is a mindful, immersive experience that involves spending time in natural environments, particularly forests, to reap the healing benefits of being surrounded by trees and other elements of nature. It is not hiking, jogging or any other outdoor activities. Instead, forest bathing is an opportunity for people to take time out, slow down, and connect with nature.
You can enjoy forest bathing by engaging all five senses 1:
- Sense of sight: look at the greens, yellows and reds surrounding you, the forest landscape, etc.
- Sense of smell: special good smell, fragrance from trees and flowers, phytoncides.
- Sense of hearing: forest sounds, listen to the birds singing and the breeze rustling in the leaves of the trees.
- Sense of touch: touching trees, the plants, immerse yourself in the forest atmosphere.
- Sense of taste: eating foods and fruits from forests, taste the fresh air in forests.
It may sound a bit far-fetched that time amongst the trees can act as medicine, but the practice of forest bathing is steeped in scientific research. The relaxation that comes from visiting these green spaces is a result of breathing in volatile substances, called phytoncides (wood essential oils), released from the trees, such as alpha-pinene and limonene.
Dr Qing Li is the president of the Society for Forest Medicine in Japan, and the author of Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing. He is a world expert and has conducted numerous studies. “It’s a preventative medicine, not a treatment,” he told the Observer. People spend their lives increasingly indoors, but we are designed to be connected to the natural world, to “listen to the wind and taste the air”.
Physical Health Benefits of Forest Bathing
A well established benefit of forest bathing for our health is the impact on our immune system.
Studies have shown that spending time in forests can boost the immune system by increasing the production of natural killer (NK) cell activity. These cells play a crucial role in fighting infections and preventing diseases, including cancer 2 3 4. These effects have been shown to last more than 7 days after forest bathing, even 30 days.
Potentially, one trip to a forest environment every few weeks could help you to maintain higher levels of NK activity and a stronger immune system!
In fact, there is a correlation between forest coverage and cancer death, where those living in areas with lower forest coverage had significantly higher rates of cancer deaths compared with the people living in areas with higher forest coverage 5. Forest bathing has been shown to increase the levels of anti-cancer proteins within cells such as perforin, GRN, and GrA/B 3.
A particularly large problem facing Americans today is high blood pressure — forest bathing can help!
Forest bathing helps those with hypertension lower their blood pressure. Several studies have compared the effects of walking in urban areas and forest areas, and consistently found forest areas to significantly lower blood pressure of participants 6–8.
Forest bathing helps lower blood pressure by reducing stress hormone levels such as adrenaline and cortisol, balancing the nervous system, and inhibiting the renin-angiotensin system, which is a body mechanism that regulates blood pressure 1. This leads to a more relaxed state and healthier blood pressure levels when spending time in nature.
Another physical benefit of time in nature is that it can help us to feel more alive!
Increased energy, vitality and restoration. We could all use more of that these days. The fresh air, sunlight, and peaceful atmosphere of the forest can rejuvenate the body and mind 9.
Mental Health Benefits of Forest Bathing
The average American spends a staggering 93% of their time indoors. And in a world where we're constantly cocooned indoors, the bustling urban landscape outside our windows contributes to a myriad of health issues, from anxiety and depression to psychosis. But fear not, for there is a natural antidote: reconnecting with nature!
As you wander through a serene forest, embracing the practice of shinrin-yoku, a profound transformation takes place. Your stress hormones - cortisol, noradrenaline, and adrenaline - subside, giving way to a tranquil state of mind 1,3.
Nature's sensory embrace further enhances your emotional well-being, releasing endorphins, serotonin, and other mood-lifting chemicals.
The effects of the natural world connect you back to the present moment, providing you with sharper focus and improved cognitive function, ready to tackle life's challenges with newfound clarity.
And when night falls, and you’re waiting for your mind to stop whirring, shinrin-yoku comes to the rescue again! Studies reveal that forest bathing can significantly improve sleep time, feelings of sleepiness, and sleep quality 1.
How Can You Incorporate Forest Bathing into Your Life?
To experience the benefits of forest bathing, find a nearby natural area with trees, such as a local park or nature reserve. Set aside at least an hour to fully immerse yourself in the environment. Leave your electronic devices behind, and focus on engaging your senses as you walk slowly through the forest. Breathe deeply, listen to the sounds of nature, observe the colors and textures of the foliage, and feel the natural surfaces beneath your feet.
Dr Qing Li’s book offers the following advice for the practice: “Make sure you have left your phone and camera behind. You are going to be walking aimlessly and slowly. You don’t need any devices. Let your body be your guide. Listen to where it wants to take you. Follow your nose. And take your time. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get anywhere. You are not going anywhere. You are savoring the sounds, smells and sights of nature and letting the forest in.”
Remember that forest bathing is not about achieving a specific goal or destination, but rather about nurturing a deeper connection with the natural world and allowing its healing properties to enhance your overall well-being.
By incorporating this mindful activity into your routine, you can experience a greater sense of balance, well-being, and connection with the natural world.
So, step outside, breathe in the fresh air, and let the healing power of nature work its magic on your body, mind, and soul.
4. Lyu, B. et al. Benefits of A Three-Day Bamboo Forest Therapy Session on the Psychophysiology and Immune System Responses of Male College Students. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public. Health 16, 4991 (2019).
5. Li, Q., Kobayashi, M. & Kawada, T. Relationships Between Percentage of Forest Coverage and Standardized Mortality Ratios (SMR) of Cancers in all Prefectures in Japan. Open Public Health J. 1, 1–7 (2008).