Your body is constantly responding at unconscious levels to the environment around you. Stimulation from traffic, artificial light, and technology bombards most people on a minute-to minute basis. Meanwhile, chronic disease and mood disorders like anxiety and depression are reaching new highs. (1,2) So researchers and clinicians have turned to nature for answers.
The forest provides measurable health benefits
Forest bathing or shinrin-yoku means immersing yourself in nature, preferably in the form of a relaxed walk under a live canopy of trees. (There’s no need to drag your bathtub into the woods.) The concept was developed in the 1980s in response to the rapid movement of Japanese citizens from the country to more urban areas. Translated as “taking in the forest,” the therapy has become a mainstay in Japanese medicine.
Forest bathing rapidly lowers stress hormone levels, blood pressure, pulse rate and heart rate variability compared with exposure to a city environment. (3)
Not bad for a non-strenuous hike. Forest bathing delivers 8 truly Bulletproof benefits:
- Reduced stress
- Immune boosting function
- Accelerated recovery from injury or illness
- Reduced blood pressure
- Improved mood
- Improved sleep
- Increased focus
- Increased energy
Other reported benefits mimic those of mindfulness and meditation – an overall increase in happiness and clarity, for example.
How does forest bathing work?
When something triggers your stress response – a difficult work presentation, for example, or being stuck in gridlock – your body releases a cascade of hormones. Overexposure to these hormones increases the risk of anxiety, depression, heart disease, weight gain and cognitive decline. Not good. But our strolls in nature can play a role in remedying that hormonal wave. Let’s look at four main ways forest bathing helps:
#1 Lowers stress hormones
Walking in nature is non-strenuous physical activity, as you know, and that can improve mood, decrease stress hormone production and increase longevity. (4) Average salivary cortisol concentrations of forest bathers are 12-13% lower compared with urban hikers. Forest bathing can also decrease sympathetic nerve activity, blood pressure and heart rate. (5)
#2 Boosts immunity
Being surrounded by trees, rather than simply being outside, may explain the immune-boosting benefits of forest bathing. Many evergreen trees give off aromatic compounds called phytoncides that increase natural killer (NK) cells, your immune system’s lead defense against viruses and disease. NK cells are suppressed by chronic exposure to stress hormones, which can lead to a weakened immune system and even cancer. But NK cell activity is always higher after forest bathing and raises as your body’s exposed to more phytoncides.
#3 Makes you smarter
Cognitive gains from forest bathing include a better mood to increased mental performance and creative problem solving. (7)
#4 Good for your respiratory system.
Forest bathing is a great opportunity to breathe some fresh air. Chronic exposure to polluted air from city living can negatively affect more than your lungs. Long-term exposure to smog and particulate matter can contribute to unhealthy cholesterol levels, raised blood glucose levels and atherosclerosis putting you at a greater risk for heart disease. (8,9, 10)
No forest? Here’s what you can do instead:
Forest bathing sounds great if you have access to a forest. But what happens if you live in the city or somewhere else that’s lacking in nature? Here are some things to try:
- Get outside anyway. No forest? No problem. Just find a natural area like a park or a quiet street in your neighborhood to walk for 20-40 minutes. Silence can have a profound effect on the relaxation of the nervous system, so leave your earbuds at home. Note: Avoid overexposure to air pollution by staying inside during peak rush hour, installing HEPA filters and adding air-cleaning plants to your home. Get out of town as often as possible to breathe fresh, clean air.
- Practice earthing. Earthing or grounding is the act of reconnecting your body to the earth by walking on dirt or grass without shoes or touching part of your body to the earth. The energy exchange from the earth to your body promotes better sleep, reduced pain and a general sense of well-being. (11)
- Diffuse essential oils into your office or bedroom. Phytoncides in cypress essential oil produces immune boosting effects similar to forest bathing. (12,13)
Want more on forest bathing and hacking anxiety? Check out this podcast with Evan Brand for more.