Forest Bathing is an excellent way to reduce stress, whilst also offering excellent health benefits, including supporting the immune system. I passionately believe in this way of boosting both your physiological and mental health and it is available to you right now. Nature Connection is a more generic term that encompasses any nature-based activity that deepens our enduring relationship with nature, including emotions, attitudes and behavior.
Read on to find out how Forest Bathing and Nature Connection can help you.
What is Forest Bathing?
Forest Bathing is an evidence-based therapeutic practice that connects participants to their natural surroundings. It’s new here, but it originated in Japan 40 years ago.
Philosophically, everyone can agree that spending time in nature is good for us, but the latest research shows there’s more to it. There’s a growing body of evidence to support the notion that spending quiet, mindful, slow time in nature is far more beneficial than previously understood. In part, this research is thanks to Dr Qing Li and his fellow researchers at Nippon Medical School.
Their findings show that the benefits of Forest Bathing (or Shinrin-Yoku, as it is called in Japan) include:
- reduced stress
- a stronger immune system (thanks largely to the immune-boosting phytoncides emitted by trees)
- increased antioxidants and boosted serotonin production
- lowered hypertension (high blood pressure)
- improvements in energy, concentration, and creativity
- reducing anxiety
- better sleep
- a deeper connection to the natural world
Let’s explore these benefits a little more….
1. A reduction in stress is possibly the biggest benefit of forest bathing
What’s the best thing to do when you’re feeling overwhelmed, angry, or depressed? A glass of something, chocolate, or retreating inwards might spring to mind, but you’re more likely to get instant relief by taking a walk outside, accompanied by a few deep breaths.
Communing with nature is the oldest form of stress management known to humankind, and yet only recently has science begun to really study it.
Prolonged exposure to stressors keeps us stuck in fight-or-flight. That’s the ‘alert but anxious’ state of mind that indicates the sympathetic nervous system is in control. However, “Forest bathing can increase the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system,” says Dr Li, the rest-and-digest counterpart to fight-or-flight, “and reduce the activity of sympathetic response. It can restore autonomic nervous system balance and deliver relaxation effects, by reducing levels of stress hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol.”
Dr Li isn’t the only one to come to this conclusion. Another team of Japanese scientists published a study in Public Health that found Forest Bathing significantly reduced feelings of depression and hostility. The more down or angry people were, the greater the benefits of spending some quiet time in the woods.
This is all significant because excess stress is the root cause of many common and serious ailments such as high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes and asthma. Preventing these illnesses is a priority for the NHS, which is exploring making Forest Bathing a ‘green prescription’.
2. A boost to the immune system
Have you heard of NK cells? They are like the Navy SEALs of the immune system. NK stands for Natural Killer. These cells play an important role in defending the body against bacteria, viruses, and tumours. NK cells are called into action any time the body senses out of control cell division or mutation.
Dr Li (as mentioned above) published a review on the subject of Forest Bathing and its immune-boosting properties in 2010. In the experiments, adult Japanese women and men took trips into a forest for three days and two nights. Afterwards, activity in the NK cells was found to be up by 50%, and the number of NK cells also grew by 53.2%. The stress reduction that comes from being outside may be one reason why, but trees themselves may be another. Phytoncides are antimicrobial compounds emitted by trees and plants that help them defend themselves against attacks by insects and germs. “Phytoncides released from trees, such as α-pinene and limonene, have a big effect,” says Li. The NK-cell impact of the three-day excursions was shown to last for 30 days afterwards.
While I may not be running three-day excursions quite yet, simply spending a couple of hours close to trees, especially oaks and conifers in the UK, means you too can benefit from increased immunity.
Thanks to modern science, there are even ways to take the woods with you wherever you go. One of Li’s studies examined how tree-derived essential oils impact NK cells. Although it was an in-vitro experiment (done in a petri dish rather than a live human), the NK cells still increased in number and activity level when incubated with the oils. And just as with longer forest bathing exposures, the oils elevated the amount of disease-fighting proteins perforin, granzyme A, and granulysin in the cells. How? Most likely the powerful phytoncides contained in tree bark and the extracts that the oils were made from.
While nobody is suggesting you inject oils into your veins, you might do well to put a few drops of cedar, cypress, pine, or any other tree-based essential oil in water, or carrier oil, and fire up a diffuser for a few minutes in the evening, or just take a few deep sniffs from an essential oil bottle. This might be particularly beneficial when your immune system is low or you’re looking to ward off viruses.
3. Increase antioxidants and kickstart serotonin production
Earthing (also called grounding) has significant research-backed scientific benefits. Essentially, as you connect to the earth the negative ions flow into your body and the production of cortisol is slowed. Negative ions are antioxidants; they neutralize the damaging stuff we pick up from technology and pollution. They allow your body to achieve equilibrium at a cellular level.
And all you need to do is stand barefoot on the earth, as part of your Forest Bathing experience!
It might sound uninviting but to feel the earth beneath your feet is soothing. I love hanging out on a particularly bouncy patch of moss in my garden. And even if you’re standing on last year’s seed pods and decaying leaf matter in the forest, it’s still a surprisingly pleasant sensation. When I first introduce the idea to the group I get a few strange looks and then most participants remember they’re here to push boundaries and join in.
Even if we leave our shoes on, just grabbing a handful of leaf litter and inhaling the earth causes people to exclaim in surprise; it smells amazing! If you’d have said to me a few years ago that I’d be enjoying smelling soil, I’d have cracked up. Isn’t it great to always be learning? The smell of damp topsoil from the forest (the humus layer) is superb just after wet weather. This smell is known as petrichor.
A beneficial species of bacteria known as Mycobacterium Vaccae is also found in soil. Considerable evidence exists now to prove it stimulates serotonin production, which helps you relax and feel happier (thus counteracting stress). This is why I also encourage you to leave the gloves in the greenhouse while you’re enjoying low-risk gardening.
4. Reducing blood pressure (hypertension)
Alongside Dr Li’s research, a gigantic meta-analysis was published in Environmental Research, in 2018. It evaluated 143 studies tracking an incredible 290 million people from 20 different countries doing some form of Forest Bathing. The results corroborated what Dr Li says about forest bathing and stress. They also demonstrated that the practice reduces blood pressure and lowers the risk of heart disease, as well as correlating with more than 100 other positive health outcomes. Safe to say, outlining each of the Forest Bathing benefits might make this blog a little too long!
More recently the UK’s first research paper into the health benefits of Forest Bathing was published. The recent study corroborated the 2018 results. The study showed that two hours spent mindfully connecting to nature in woodland resulted in a reduction in heart rate variability (HRV, a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat). HRV directly impacts blood pressure so the lower the HRV, the lower the blood pressure.
5. Support for concentration, energy, and creative thinking
A 2015 study from the University of Melbourne found that subjects who merely looked out a window at a natural scene for just 40 seconds increased their focus and alertness.
Forest Therapy can give you back your energy and vitality. You leave refreshed and rejuvenated. I know this might sound unlikely, since I’ve often mentioned slowing down, restoring inner calm, and reaching a state of peaceful relaxation. But it’s true. Various studies have shown the practice leaves people feeling positive and raring to go, and again the results from my early tests and many customers corroborate these findings.
Taking a step back in time, nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche often strolled in nature for more than four hours a day. And he actually credited the habit with allowing him to conceive his world-changing theories. Nature-loving has been a common trait among other big thinkers too. These include psychoanalysts Carl Jung, Albert Einstein, and Aristotle, who taught his students while walking through the wooded hills of ancient Greece.
I recently had a business meeting in the woods. We walked for an hour and a half, meandering, pondering, wandering… and it was right at the end that this ingenious idea popped into my head. I had been percolating for a while but it had been hard to get that clarity of thought. The woodland walk helped clear my head of the noise, the clutter, the overwhelm, and bingo. As we finished, it all became clear
6. Lower anxiety
Some of these findings are hard to measure. I carried out a recognised mood test (POMS – Profile of Mood States) with the volunteers in my trial forest bathing sessions. It involved them grading their emotional state before and after the walk. The most notable change in mood was a reduction in anxiety. And given that it’s also the most prevalent condition among my customers, I’m pretty excited about this.
As a highly sensitive and anxious person myself, it’s been an effective preventative medicine for me. Although I still get anxious (there is no magic bullet, I’m afraid!), the more I immerse myself in nature, the less ‘loud’ my anxiety is when it comes. It’s not debilitating anymore. And the more confident I am that I have the tools to manage it. I definitely notice my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors change when I haven’t spent some time ‘just being' in the woods for a couple of weeks. For example during the lockdowns when I had no time alone in nature because I was always looking after Leo.
A recent UK research paper reported there were improvements in positive emotions, mood disturbance, rumination, nature connection, and compassion. Furthermore, Forest Bathing had equivalence with an established well-being intervention. The findings will help healthcare providers and policymakers to understand the effects of Forest Bathing and implement it as a feasible social prescription to improve well-being.
7. Sleeping better after Forest Bathing
We also know that there is a connection between sleeping better after spending a significant amount of time outside. This is, in part, due to the fact that your body (thanks to the eyes and brain) gets all of the right signals to match its natural circadian rhythm. It’s basic – we need plenty of light during the daytime. If we spend too much time inside, in a poorly lit office, for example, our natural ‘body clock’ can get out of sync, leaving us unable to sleep at night. And did you know we in the UK spend 95% of our time indoors these days?
Forest Bathing ensures we experience not only the benefits of connecting with nature but also that we get fresh air and daylight exposure. This in turn helps us to produce melatonin at the right time and to sleep better at night.
Many of my customers have mentioned they had a fantastic night’s sleep after a guided Forest Bathing experience. I’m certain it comes from simply being outside amongst the trees for a few hours.
8. Increased resilience
Finally, the University of Derby has presented findings showing that increased nature connection results in sustained increases in:
- ability to trust, feel empathy and kindness for others
- sense of belonging to something ‘bigger’
- ability to handle life’s ups and downs
Nature Connectedness is a measurable, psychological construct that captures one’s level of kinship with the natural world. They have identified 5 pathways to increase nature connection – find out more here.
Research shows that people with a greater connection to nature are more likely to behave positively toward the environment, wildlife, and habitats. Hopefully, I have convinced you here of a few of the many benefits to you personally too.
If you’re ready to give it a try feel free to get in touch. And if you have any questions or concerns about attending a session for health reasons, contact me. I try to make my sessions as accessible as possible to all and many folks with mobility issues and fatigue have loved their experiences.
Do just get in touch.