Forest Bathing: Enjoying Nature’s Health Benefits

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

Some people can’t see the forest for the trees. But others…well, they see, smell, hear, touch, taste, and savor every bit of beauty, serenity, and nature that the forest has to offer. These people take part in a Japanese ritual called shinrin-yoku, which translates to “forest bathing.”

Although I published this article some time back, I think now is a great time to revisit the benefits of being out in nature…we’ve been under a great amount of stress the last two years! Many of us are still spending more time at home and not able to do the things we are accustomed to for stress relief and enjoyment. Going outside for fresh air, sunshine and exercise can help us stay healthy and happy. I believe getting a “nature fix” is one of those little things in life that can make all the difference.

The concept of forest bathing (aka forest therapy) is simple: Sitting in or strolling through the woods helps you achieve both physical and mental health. It began in Japan in the 1980s and has since become a common practice among its citizens. In fact, they widely regard forest bathing as not only an important foundation for preventive health but also a useful tool for healing the sick.

It’s not just anecdotal either. The Japanese are the world leaders in conducting research and collecting data on the benefits of forest bathing. The results speak for themselves.

Research Into Forest Bathing

In one study, 13 healthy women took part in a three-day forest bathing experiment. On days one and two, they took walks through different forests, and on day three, they returned home to Tokyo. The researchers took blood and urine samples on days two and three, and again seven and 30 days after the trip. They determined that forest therapy not only increased the number and activity of tumor and virus-destroying natural killer (NK) cells, but the effect lasted at least seven days. The women also had higher levels of anti-cancer proteins in their blood. The researchers said that substances released by the trees may have played a role.

The same researchers repeated this experiment on 12 male participants this time, and found that forest therapy significantly increased NK activity and cell numbers, and lowered levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) and adrenaline. Just like with the women, the effects lasted for seven days.

In a similar study, 16 healthy men took day trips to a forest park outside Tokyo, and also to an urban area of Tokyo (as the control). On both trips, they walked for two hours in the morning and in the afternoon. Compared to the time spent in the city, the forest bathing significantly reduced their blood pressure and adrenaline and dopamine levels (both of these are brain neurotransmitters that rile you up). They also had higher levels of adiponectin (a hormone that regulates glucose, lowers inflammation, and fights obesity) and DHEA-S (the precursor to estrogen and testosterone).

A final study measured various markers of stress in 420 participants in the city vs. in the forest. Compared to being in the city, cortisol levels dropped 12.4% after simply being in the forest, and even more (15.8%) after walking in the forest. They also experienced lower heart rate—a 5.8% decrease, and blood pressure also went down. And parasympathetic nervous activity was enhanced by 55%, which basically meant they were in a calm, relaxed state.

Forest Bathing and High-Vibrational Living

Additional benefits of forest bathing that can’t be measured but can certainly be felt include better mood, improved focus, enhanced energy, and sounder sleep. Even our ancient ancestors knew that getting some sun and breathing fresh, clean air is a boon to our mental and emotional health.

Over the last few decades, though, we’ve become more disconnected than ever from the natural world. Even before this new time of social distancing, the average American was spending more than 90% of his or her day indoors, often in stuffy office buildings staring at computers, at home in front of the TV, or both. And many children, unfortunately, prefer sitting in front of electronics over time at the park.

Fortunately, forest therapy is no longer a tradition limited to Japan and neighboring Asian countries. More and more people in the US are starting to recognize the dangers of too much indoor time and the very real benefits of nature and forest bathing. And it’s really starting to take off.

In fact, an organization called the Association of Natural & Forest Therapy (ANFT) was founded in 2012 to educate the public about all the good things that come from the simple act of forest bathing. ANFT trains and certifies forest therapy guides who can take you on nature walks and show you how to connect with nature and appreciate all the remarkable things that the forest can offer you—both tangible and intangible.

I have a deep appreciation for forest bathing because it falls right in line with my philosophy of following a high-vibrational lifestyle. High vibrational living gets you closer to nature in many ways…eating organic foods and superfoods; earthing/grounding; meditating and practicing gratitude. These are all things that not only make us healthier in the short- and long-term, but connect us to our planet.

What is Earthing or Grounding?

Now, I do have a few caveats with forest bathing… First, be careful about ticks when in woody areas, as tick bites can lead to Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses. You can protect yourself by wearing long pants tucked into your socks, a hat and long sleeves, as well as light clothing, so you have a better chance of seeing a tick that has made its way onto your body. Applying eucalyptus oil to your skin (with a carrier oil or lotion) can help repel ticks, as can Neem oil, a natural insecticide product from India. As soon as you’re back indoors, put your clothes in the dryer and run it at high heat for 10 to 15 minutes, and check your body & scalp (and your kids’ and pets’ bodies) for ticks. Taking a shower or bath after forest bathing can also help wash of ticks before they have a chance to attach and burrow.

I love that an organization like ANFT is bringing forest bathing to the mainstream. We all need to get outside more and put nature back into our lives. Now that spring is here, I encourage you to do so with joy and respect for the social distancing guidelines mentioned above. Be well!


© Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved. All rights reserved.

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