How Nature Heals

The benefits of forest bathing.

Posted Nov 19, 2020

CC0/Unsplash/David-Wirzba
Source: CC0/Unsplash/David-Wirzba

Among all their marvels, trees are good listeners. They stand silently and courteously, holding space for all our thoughts — the happy ones and the sad ones. They’ve learned mercy, they’ve earned wisdom, from observing life unfold. They’ve seen and heard it all. Sometimes, they will let the wind chime in. Leaves will whisper. Branches will nod. Birds will offer their good sense. Beetles will poke their curious heads out of cracked bark and damp soil. But the trees, unperturbed and dignified, will keep listening to our stories, even before we put them into words. 

For thousands of years, humans have turned to Nature for their ailments. By now, the benefits of pulling away from the grip of our stressful, urban lifestyles and stepping into the arms of Nature are well documented by science. Take, for example, the growing popularity of shinrin yoku or forest bathing. In recent years, countless forest-goers around the world have been enjoying the therapeutic effects of this Japanese practice. Whether they come in groups or alone, in Europe or in Asia — the forests reward their visitors. As writer John Muir penned, “In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks.”

As a forest therapy practitioner from Ireland, Shirley Gleeson regularly witnesses some of these well-being effects firsthand. Gleeson sees her role as a facilitator, helping her clients establish a deep connection with Nature. Her biggest lesson, she tells me, is to know when to get out of the way and let Nature do its work. “I may have a whole outdoor session planned and the group just wants to lie in the moss or sit with a tree,” she says. 

At first glance, forest bathing might look similar to the leisurely Nature visits you indulge in on sunny weekends. It’s the same walk, along the same trails, with the same hiking shoes strapped on your feet. But there is a twist: The roles between you and the forest are reversed. Now, you are the listener. Now, you are the one offering the woods your doting presence. It’s usually the treetops that keep an eye over you as you trudge through labyrinths of ancient roots and pass by the rumbling creek that lives between the straight-spined pines, barely touched by their grace.

Now, you are there, truly there, to hear the trees and to taste the air.

What happens next? 

After initial self-consciousness, forest-bathers appear to let go of their everyday roles and just be, observes Gleeson. The sights, smells, and sounds of the forest might bring up happy childhood memories of possibilities and imagination. Various emotions might arise — playfulness, joy, creativity, sometimes even sadness from the realization that “they had not laid on the forest floor or felt the rain on their faces since they were children,” notes Gleeson. Overall, as mental chatter subsides and clarity settles, her group leaves the forest “lighter, smiling, and rejuvenated.”

CC0/Unsplash/eleonora-albasi
Source: CC0/Unsplash/eleonora-albasi

On the other side of the Earth, forest therapist Nagisa Ono invites her clients to engage all their senses as they take in the splendor of the Japanese forests. In the past 13 years, she has guided over 2000 people to experience the wonders of shinrin yoku. “The most important thing is to relax in the forest,” she says. That makes it easier to enjoy the forest as a multisensory feast. In the meantime, while our senses are absorbed in smelling, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting the Nature around us, a cascade of health benefits floods through our minds and bodies.

According to research, the benefits of forest bathing are far-ranging. For example, forest bathing has been shown to:  

  1. Increase the activity and number of immune cells that are important for fighting viruses, bacteria, and even tumors. Studies show that higher levels of these “natural killer” cell activity is associated with reduced cancer risk. 
  2. Reduce blood pressure and heart rate, thus have preventative effects on hypertension 
  3. Reduce blood glucose levels in type 2 diabetes patients
  4. Increase serums that have anti-tumorigenesis activity (adiponectin) and have cardioprotective and anti-obesity properties (DHEA-S)
  5. Balance the nervous system, by increasing the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, and dampening the activity of the sympathetic nervous system
  6. Reduce stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol
  7. Reduce anxiety, depression, anger, mental fatigue
  8. Increase vigor
  9. Improve creativity
  10. Improve sleep quality 
  11. One of the mechanisms that facilitate these therapeutic benefits comes directly from the forest air itself. Phytoncides are volatile organic compounds that are exuded from trees and plants and act as protective agents against harmful insects. Inhaling these natural forest fragrances drives some of the positive effects of the forest on our physiological functioning. 

Then there is the enchanting beauty of Nature. 

“Sometimes it is like stepping into another world where time seems to slow down, and endless possibilities emerge,” says Gleeson. Entering “forest time” prompts our bodies to get attuned to the rhythms of Nature, Gleeson explains, calming and slowing our minds, refreshing our spirits. Perhaps that’s the secret of Nature that poets have urged us to embrace: patience. 

If you are thinking of giving forest bathing a try, Gleeson has these practical tips:

  • Turn off your phone
  • Bring layers of clothing
  • Go to the forest with an open mind and an open heart
  • Engage all your senses
  • Don’t get surprised if initially, some frustrations arise, especially if you are a very active person (slowing down can do that)
  • Give yourself permission to take time out for yourself, without having to achieve any goals
  • Let the forest do the work

Sometimes, the awe that the forest’s wilderness can evoke in humans is similar to that of the boundless, star-scattered night sky. There is a mystery in the presence of Nature’s majesty, an inkling of something bigger than ourselves, an awareness of not-knowing. But unlike other mysteries, Nature leaves us with profound feelings of belonging. For Ono, that — the fact that we are part of Nature — is the biggest lesson from the forest. 

CC0/Pixabay/Pete Linforth
Source: CC0/Pixabay/Pete Linforth

In a way, then, standing with the trees, listening to the birds, smelling the pines, touching the moss, tasting the moist air, is a homecoming. And if you find yourself enthralled by the forest’s welcome, looking for ways to grasp on to the magic around you, keep in mind Ono’s gentle advice: “Try not to gain from the forest, but instead, to notice the changes within you.” Those changes might just be a sign that the magic has found you. 

Many thanks to Shirley Gleeson and Nagisa Ono for their time and insights. Shirley Gleeson is a Nature & Wellbeing Consultant, the Director of Ecowellness Consulting Ltd. and the Co-Founder of the Forest Therapy Institute. Nagisa Ono is a Forest Therapist and the Executive Director of Future With Forest Association

References

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Ideno, Y., Hayashi, K., Abe, Y., Ueda, K., Iso, H., Noda, M., ... & Suzuki, S. (2017). Blood pressure-lowering effect of Shinrin-yoku (Forest bathing): a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 17(1), 409.

Li, Q., Morimoto, K., Kobayashi, M., Inagaki, H., Katsumata, M., Hirata, Y., ... & Kawada, T. (2008). Visiting a forest, but not a city, increases human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins. International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology, 21(1), 117-127.

Park, B. J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y. (2010). The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, 15(1), 18.

Ohtsuka, Y., Yabunaka, N., & Takayama, S. (1998). Shinrin-yoku (forest-air bathing and walking) effectively decreases blood glucose levels in diabetic patients. International Journal of Biometeorology, 41(3), 125-127.

Morita, E., Imai, M., Okawa, M., Miyaura, T., & Miyazaki, S. (2011). A before and after comparison of the effects of forest walking on the sleep of a community-based sample of people with sleep complaints. BioPsychoSocial Medicine, 5(1), 13.

Li, Q., Otsuka, T., Kobayashi, M., Wakayama, Y., Inagaki, H., Katsumata, M., ... & Suzuki, H. (2011). Acute effects of walking in forest environments on cardiovascular and metabolic parameters. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 111(11), 2845-2853.

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Chen, H. T., Yu, C. P., & Lee, H. Y. (2018). The effects of forest bathing on stress recovery: Evidence from middle-aged females of Taiwan. Forests, 9(7), 403.

Yu, C. P. S., & Hsieh, H. (2020). Beyond restorative benefits: Evaluating the effect of forest therapy on creativity. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 126670.

Imai, K., Matsuyama, S., Miyake, S., Suga, K., & Nakachi, K. (2000). Natural cytotoxic activity of peripheral-blood lymphocytes and cancer incidence: an 11-year follow-up study of a general population. The Lancet, 356(9244), 1795-1799.

Li, Q. (2020). Introduction of forest medicine: Effects of forest bathing shinrin-yoku on human health. In Forests for Public Health (p. 2-30), edited by Gallis, C. & Shin, W.S. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Gleeson, S., O’Keeffe, D., Gesse, A., (2020). Feasibility and experience of a forest therapy intervention for adults enduring stress. In Forests for Public Health (p. 116-158), edited by Gallis, C. & Shin, W.S. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.