When I first heard the term “forest bathing,” I sort of rolled my eyes and chalked it up to one of several “woo woo” fads that come and go. But, after some preliminary exploration of the concept, I found it has been studied and researched since the 1990s. Forest bathing, known as Shinrin-yoku in Japan, has gained significant attention for its therapeutic benefits on both mental and physical health. This practice involves immersing oneself in nature, particularly in forests, to engage with the natural environment intentionally. In this post I’ll explore just some of the evidence supporting the emotional and physiological advantages that forest bathing can provide.
Understanding Forest Bathing
What is Forest Bathing?
Forest bathing isn’t just about taking a walk in the woods; it’s a mindful and immersive experience. It encourages individuals to engage all their senses deeply while surrounded by nature. The practice involves slowing down, observing, touching, smelling, and connecting with the natural environment.
The Emotional Benefits
Numerous studies have highlighted the stress-reducing effects of forest bathing. One study published in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine found that participants who engaged in forest bathing exhibited lower cortisol levels (a stress hormone) compared to those in urban settings. Additionally, they reported feeling more relaxed and at ease.
Improved Mood and Mental Health
Research published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health suggests that forest bathing is associated with decreased levels of depression, anxiety, and hostility. Spending time in nature can positively impact mood regulation, leading to improved mental well-being.
Enhanced Creativity and Cognitive Function
Another study from the Journal of Environmental Psychology discovered that exposure to nature, particularly forests, improved creativity and cognitive function in individuals. This enhancement is attributed to the calming effect of nature on the brain, allowing for better focus and problem-solving abilities.
The Physiological Benefits
Boosted Immune System
Forest bathing has been linked to improved immune function. Research demonstrates an increase in natural killer cell (NK cells) activity and the expression of anti-cancer proteins in individuals who practiced forest bathing regularly. This strongly suggests a potential boost to the immune system if forest bathing is a regular practice.
Lowered Blood Pressure and Heart Rate
Other studies, such as those published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, have shown that spending time in forest environments is associated with decreased blood pressure and heart rate. This reduction in physiological markers of stress contributes to overall cardiovascular health.
The Mechanisms Behind Forest Bathing’s Benefits
Phytoncides and Aromatherapy
Trees emit essential oils known as phytoncides, which are demonstrated to have various health benefits. These compounds, inhaled during forest bathing, have been shown to reduce stress hormones and enhance immune function. Additionally, the aromatherapy effect of these natural scents contributes to relaxation and emotional well-being. Trees with higher phytoncides include cedars, pine, spruces and conifers.
Mindfulness and Nature Connection
Forest bathing promotes mindfulness, a practice linked to reduced stress and increased resilience. Being present in nature, focusing on sensory experiences, and fostering a connection with the environment contribute to the therapeutic effects of this practice. Studies also show that while walks in both a natural environment and an urban environment both promote stress reduction and benefits, walks in nature have more positive benefits than urban walks.
How to Practice Forest Bathing
- Mindful Engagement: Slow down, use all your senses, and be present in the moment.
- Immersive Experience: Engage with nature deeply, touching, smelling, listening and observing.
- Unplugging: Remove distractions like phones and gadgets to fully engage with the environment.
- Regular Practice: Aim for consistent exposure to nature to reap the long-term benefits.
With over 80% of Americans living in high density urban areas and the average person spending over three hours per day on their cell phone, most of us are disengaged from most anything natural. Computer and cell phone screens emit blue light which often affects sleep and vision, time is largely spent indoors, and many of us sit for hours in a day. Forest bathing offers numerous evidence-backed emotional and physiological benefits, making it a valuable adjunct to improved mental health. I highly recommend the book “Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness” by Dr. Quing Li.
I encourage you to consider forest bathing and incorporate the practice into your routine to enhance your emotional and physical well-being. You don’t have to take a trip to the mountains to forest bathe but can simply spend time in one of your city’s parks. Try it for a while and you be the judge of whether it makes a difference!