Boost Your Overall Health with Forest Bathing (or Shinrin Yoku)
If you’re interested in reaping the benefits of being outdoors, then you’ll definitely want to add forest bathing to your to-do list. And don’t worry, you don’t have to live in an extremely wooded area to take advantage of this natural therapy. In fact, there’s even numerous forest bathing NYC locations, like the very well-known Central Park, for example.
Forest’s bathing concept of exposing ourselves to nature to obtain physical, mental and emotional benefits is pretty timeless, but it’s certainly trending in recent years. It’s not hard to find a forest bathing book online or in bookstores, and you can even find forest bathing youtube videos. One of the most impressive effects of forest bathing is its ability to encourage relaxation and reduce stress, which is huge since stress plays a role in so many acute and chronic diseases. (1)
What Is Forest Bathing?
Forest bathing is also called shinrin-yoku. What does shinrin yoku mean? In Japanese, shinrin means “forest” and yoku means “bath.” So if you put it together, shinrin plus yoku equals a forest bath or bathing in a forest environment by taking in your surroundings using all of your senses. What is tree bathing? Some people also refer to forest bathing as “tree bathing” or “nature therapy.”
Shinrin-yoku or forest bathing is said to have officially started in the early 1980s in Japan, where it continues to be a form of preventative medicine and natural treatment to this day. (2) When you practice forest bathing, you are not trying to get a sweat-producing workout in or reach the end of a long trail. Rather, you are simply connecting with the nature around you.
To forest bathe, you immerse yourself in naturally beautiful and health-boosting forest surroundings by using your various senses of sight, hearing, smell, etc. It’s meant to be a very peaceful and positive experience that has been shown by science to provide various health benefits, which I’m about to share with you.
6 Major Benefits of Forest Bathing
1. Boost Immune Function
Forest bathing definitely makes the list of weird ways to stop an infection and also immune system boosters. A scientific review published in 2010 titled, “Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function” finds that spending time in nature can significantly boost activity of white blood cells called natural killer cells (NK). This is huge because NK cells help to fight virus and tumor cells.
The review reveals how three days of forest bathing increased subjects’ NK activity, number of NK cells, as well as the levels of intracellular anti-cancer proteins. These positive affects of forest bathing are attributed to phytoncides, which are basically antimicrobial wood essential oils from trees such as alpha-Pinene and limonene. (3)
Previous scientific research with human subjects has also shown that exposure to phytoncides can significantly increase NK activity along with lowering stress hormone levels and increasing expression of anti-cancer proteins. (4) Finding forest bathing cancer patients is not uncommon since not only can being in the forest decrease the stress and anxiety associated with cancer, but it may also help the body to fight off cancer as well.
2. Lower Blood Pressure
High blood pressure or hypertension is not a condition to ignore. Thankfully, there are a lot of natural ways to get hypertension under control. Shinrin yoku forest bathing has actually been shown to help lower blood pressure. The researchers who published one forest bathing study in 2011 already knew that forest environments are known for lowering stress hormones like adrenaline and noradrenaline and produce an overall relaxing effect, but they wanted to find out more.
In their small clinical study, these researchers took a look at how walking in forest environments affected cardiovascular and metabolic parameters in 16 healthy male subjects. The results were very positive — habitual walking in forest environments appears to lower blood pressure by decreasing sympathetic nerve activity. The forest bathing also had positive effects on stress hormone levels. (5)
3. Improve Nervous System Health
Forest bathing is also known to have a positive effect on heart rate variability. This is very significant to nervous system health since heart rate variability (the variation in the time interval between heartbeats) is indicative of how healthy the balance is between the sympathetic nervous system (main function is to activate the physiological changes that occur during the fight-or-flight response) and the parasympathetic system (also called the “rest and digest system” or “recovery system” because it lowers blood pressure and heart rate).
To keep the sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic system in balance is key to avoiding a constant stressed state of fight-or-flight, and forest bathing not surprisingly appears to help maintain this healthy nervous system balance.(6)
4. Reduce Stress
As a forest bathing NPR article pointed out, trees are known to infuse the air with compounds that may have very positive effects on human beings. (7) These compounds are called phytonicides and a study published back in 2009 found that they can actually decrease stress hormone levels in both men and women. (8) How do you obtain phytoncides forest bathing? Simply breathe in that good forest air!
5. Boost Mental Health
Research published in 2015 demonstrates yet again how we really can’t forget to spend time outdoors, especially as more and more people live in urban areas and feel disconnected from nature these days. This study found that participants who took a 90-minute nature walk self-reported “lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment.” (9)
As Irina Wen, PhD, clinical psychologist and clinical director of the Steven A. Military Family Clinic at NYU Langone Medical Center points out, “Nature can be beneficial for mental health. It reduces cognitive fatigue and stress and can be helpful with depression and anxiety.” (10)
In the mood for a mental boost? It may be time to take a bath (no soap or water required) in your local forest.
6. Boost Cognitive Function and Get More Creative
It probably won’t surprise you (or maybe it will) that spending more time in nature can really boost your creativity. A study conducted by psychologists from the University of Utah and University of Kansas, found that backpackers’ creativity test scores were 50 percent better after spending four days in nature disconnected from electronic devices. This study published in 2012 was “the first to document systematic changes in higher-level cognitive function associated with immersion in nature.” (11)
According to David Strayer, a co-author of the study and professor of psychology at the University of Utah, “This is a way of showing that interacting with nature has real, measurable benefits to creative problem-solving that really hadn’t been formally demonstrated before.”
He adds, “It provides a rationale for trying to understand what is a healthy way to interact in the world, and that burying yourself in front of a computer 24/7 may have costs that can be remediated by taking a hike in nature.” (12) Additionally, for so many suffering from smartphone addiction, getting out into nature is the Rx that most need.
Other Benefits of Being Outdoors
Being outdoors also gives you a chance to practice grounding or earthing, which is a method of connecting with the earth’s natural energy by going barefoot.
You can counteract seasonal affective disorder (SAD)by spending time outside, too. Researchers believe this disorder may be linked to a lack of sunlight and vitamin D. When you spend time outdoors, you can get more of both and the benefits of vitamin D are major when it comes to so many aspects of our health.
Let’s also not forget how great it is to escape indoor air pollution and breathe in some fresh air in the great outdoors.
Forest Bathing in Ayurveda & Traditional Chinese Medicine
It’s known as Japanese forest bathing, but other ancient medical systems are certainly fans of this practice including Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) views humans as not being separate from nature and greatly values staying in touch with our natural surroundings. Many practitioners of TCM view our bodies as a reflection of the natural world. Forest bathing or nature therapy is a valued method of maintaining homeostasis in the body along with other TCM practices like acupuncture. (13)
In Ayurvedic Medicine, there is an emphasis on universal interconnectedness or the idea of a connection among people, their health and the universe. (14) Yoga is one of the many natural ways that Ayurveda looks to maintain this interconnectedness and nowadays, yoga is being combined with forest bathing. While some people choose to walk or sit in their forest surroundings, some choose to put an Ayurvedic twist on their tree bathing and practice yoga in the forest.
How to Practice Forest Bathing
The steps of forest bathing are quite simple: (15)
- Go to a forest
- Walk slowly
- Open all your senses
According to Shinrin-yoku.org, this is “the medicine of simply being in the forest.”
Basically, forest bathing is spending time among trees and nature with no distractions. You won’t be phubbing anyone because you certainly will not be using technology while you’re forest bathing. The idea is to be very present, not to capture the moment for social media.
You also won’t be trying to reach an end destination like you would in a hike, you’re simply in the woods being very present and soaking it all in with your various senses so that you’re seeing the beauty around, breathing in the fresh air, feeling the bark of a nearby tree. The act of forest bathing is definitely a bit meditative, but there are no strict rules of concentration or discipline.
If you’re wondering, where is some forest bathing near me? You can forest bath just about anywhere that you are surrounded by trees. This can be a small park in a city or a huge national park like Yellowstone. Wherever you are, just set the intention to connect with nature in a healing way.
If you’re feeling unsure about how to go about forest bathing, you may find help in a nature guide. What is a nature guide? A nature guide typically helps people to connect with their natural environment through interpretation and education. There’s also now certified forest therapy guides. What is a certified forest therapy guide? It’s someone who “facilitates safe gentle walks, providing instructions — referred to as “invitations” — for sensory opening activities along the way.” (16)
If you’re interested in receiving your forest bathing certification, the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides & Programs offers forest therapy guide training all over the world at select locations throughout the year.
Forest Bathing History
Shinrin-yoku or forest bathing is said to have officially started in Japan in the early 1980s. From an anthropological (study of humankind) perspective, forest bathing or nature therapy has been practiced by various tribes and cultures from the dawn of time.
Today, nature therapy is practiced all around the globe in all kinds of beautiful forests. Japan continues to one of the areas of the world that not surprisingly cherishes forest bathing. It’s a country which currently has over 60 forest therapy camps. (17)
Forest Bathing Precautions
- Check your local weather forecast before heading out.
- Let someone know where you’re going and when you will return, especially if you’re going alone.
- Check on current trail or park conditions for any closures, animal sightings, etc..
- Dress appropriately for the current and expected weather.
- Have a first aid kit, food and water on hand.
- Make sure you are familiar with your park or forest, carrying a map is a smart idea even if you’ve been there before.
- What is forest therapy? Forest bathing, also known as forest therapy, is the act of spending time in a forest environment with the intention of taking in and connecting with your natural surroundings using all of your senses.
- One of the main reasons why forest therapy can be so beneficial is the fact that trees give off beneficial compounds called phytoncides which have been shown to significantly increase NK activity, lower stress hormone levels and increase expression of anti-cancer proteins.
- Forest bathing can be practiced in any wooded environment for any duration of time.
- There are now forest bathing guides who can help you get started in your forest bathing practice.
- Forest bathing benefits include increased immune function, lower blood pressure, stress and anxiety reduction, improved nervous system health, a better mental state, and heightened creativity.