Forest Therapy: Surround Yourself with Trees for Better Health
The practice of forest bathing, also known as shinrin-yoku, has been steadily gaining recognition in Japan in recent years as an effective relaxation and stress management technique. First proposed as a therapeutic activity by the Forest Agency of Japan in 1982, forest bathing involves simply immersing oneself in a natural wooded environment.
While it may seem obvious that trading the confines of a man-made urban setting for the natural surroundings among which we evolved would produce immediate positive health effects, there have been plenty of studies that have definitively quantified the healing effects of spending time in nature. These effects include improved cognitive abilities, lowered stress hormone levels, lowered blood pressure and increased immune and anti-cancer cell activity.
Science also has no shortage of distinct theories to offer as to why forest therapy is effective. They include:
- Aromatherapy: Japanese research suggests that breathing in antimicrobial airborne volatile organic compounds that trees produce, called phytoncides, stimulates the immune system, resulting in increased levels of cancer-fighting natural killer cells.
- Better air quality: Trees purify and oxygenate the air, and if you’re surrounded by them on all sides, you’re likely farther away from sources of air pollution than if you were in an urban area.
- Less noise pollution: Similarly, if you’re in a natural area, you’re likely to be farther away from loud industrial noises, traffic, crowds, etc. than you would be in a city. Constant noise is stimulating to the adrenals and senses and can leave you stressed and cognitively depleted.
- Aesthetics: We’ve all (I hope) had the experience of feeling powerfully drawn to the beauty of nature, and research has shown that simply looking at pictures of nature can produce cognitive benefits. It may be that the color green vibrates on a relaxation-inducing frequency. Another possibility is that looking at the fractals – geometric forms containing patterns that repeat as the form is magnified – found widely in nature bring us pleasure.
From my perspective, the biggest take-away from the research on forest therapy is that the closer we live to the natural environment that supported our health throughout our evolution, the happier and healthier we’ll be. Cities promote efficiency and the exchange of ideas. Buildings offer protection from the elements, lighting and air conditioning. But the simple fact is that if we’re separated from our natural environment (or destroy it), our health suffers, no matter how hard we work at optimizing our diets and fitness routines. More nature = better health.