Most people would agree that escaping the noise and pollution of the city to spend time in nature is a good thing. We all know we feel better in a natural environment, and we bring potted plants and cut flowers into our urban lives to compensate for the dearth of nature in the built environment. Now there is exciting new research confirming the health promoting, stress reducing effects of contact with nature, especially being in a forest and the overall benefits to our physical, emotional and mental wellbeing.
Horticulture therapy – the healing power of being in nature and interacting with plants – is an ancient concept made anew. The Pharohs were advised in Egyptian papyri to walk in the gardens for healing, and today nursing homes, rehab centers and prisons are just a few of the places you can find horticulture therapy being practiced. Forest Bathing therapy (Shinrin Yoku) is a specialized branch of the same reasoning.
Over 35 years ago, in 1982, the Forest Agency of Japan advocated the practice of walking in the forest and being in the presence of trees as a useful health promoting activity. Over 60 designated forest bathing sites have been established across the country, where your doctor can prescribe you time in the woods for stress, hypertension or anxiety.
Now it seems the genie is out of the bottle and everyone is talking about it. As fast as the forests and wild lands are being lost to development, we are coming to realize more and more how valuable they really are. The real and measurable physiological benefits of being in nature are not the norm for most people today. Somewhere around 2 years ago the world population passed the point where more than 50% of the population live in urban environments. Now the predominant experience of people’s daily lives is urban, manmade, straight lines and containment of nature.
The concept of healing properties in the experience of nature even has a name: Shinrin-yoku in Japanese, Sanlimyok in Korean, and it is being promoted as an antidote to the manufactured, artificial, urbanized lives most of us lead. Studies conducted in the last few years even show that forest bathing increases a component of the immune system that fights cancer. (Int J Immunopathol Pharmaco. 2007 Apr-Jun;20(2 Suppl 2):3-8. Forest bathing enhances human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins. Li Q, et al. )
Specifically, the researchers suggest, walking in evergreen forests (spruce / fir / pine) has the most benefits. The reason for this is due to the terpenoid molecules called phytoncides that are emitted by the trees as chemical airborne messages to tell each other about predators and disease. These compounds, of which there are several thousand known, act as early warning signals to the other trees to prepare them for meeting a threat. In a similar way, they can be used by our immune system to activate and invigorate the leucocyte responses. Researchers suggest that human immune activity may be increased in response to breathing in air containing phytoncides (wood essential oils) like α-pinene and limonene. (http://www.hphpcentral.com/article/forest-bathing)
In 2016 I was lucky enough to go to Japan and Korea and study Shinrin Yoku. Walking through a mall one day in Osan, a couple of hours outside of Seoul, going in to a ‘natural lifestyles’ store, I was startled to find a bottle of phytoncide room spray “to bring the forest into your home” ! In such an urbanized society as south Korea, even in the midst of a fast growing modern city, people are still trying to get in touch with nature. The room spray won’t really work for them but the placebo effect in medicine is sometimes as high as 30%, so possibly some people will get benefits anyway.
More likely is that prolonged, and preferably frequent exposure to forests is necessary to effect lasting change. Measuring stress markers in men and women before and after a two-night/three-day forest bathing trip revealed a significant boost in Natural Killer cell activity. The increase was observed as long as 30 days after the trip. Follow-up studies showed a significant increase in NK activity was also achieved after a day-trip to a forest, with the increase observed for seven days after the trip. Forest bathing significantly decreased the scores for anxiety, depression and anger in one Japanese study and led the researchers to suggest that forest bathing may help to decrease the risk of psychosocial stress-related diseases. (Natural England Commissioned Report NECR204, A review of nature -based interventions for mental health care www.gov.uk/natural-england)
Forest bathing trips reduce the concentration of cortisol in saliva, reduce the concentrations of urinary adrenaline and noradrenaline, reduce prefrontal cerebral activity, reduce blood pressure and stabilize autonomic nervous activity in humans. (http://forest-medicine.com/epage01.html)
A February 2016 WHO report summarizing evidence on the health effects of green space in urban areas shows that green spaces offer numerous public health benefits, including psychological relaxation and stress reduction, enhanced physical activity and a potential reduction in exposure to – among other harmful urban factors – air pollution, noise and excessive heat. The report concludes that there is a need for both small, local green spaces situated very close to where people live and spend their day, and large green spaces that provide formal recreational facilities (such as playing fields) and opportunities to interact with nature. (http://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/environment-and-health/pages/news/news/2016/11/who-report-shows-urban-green-spaces-deliver-multiple-health-benefits)
With ever greater numbers of people experiencing significant mental health problems and with the prescription of anti- depressants at record levels, it is encouraging to think that something as simple as a walk in the woods could be so beneficial, accessible and affordable.
Horticulture therapy and it’s off shoots, termed ‘Green Care’ or ‘Ecotherapy’ as well as Shinrin yoku, can be implemented into town planning and urban design as well as architecture for homes, offices, hospitals etc. whereby everybody has access to some green space, trees on the streets, pocket parks, planted buildings. And on a personal level, we can all make a goal and set an intention of spending time regularly in a forest.
Background research and further reading
Buhner S, The Lost Language of Plants, The Secret Teachings of Plants, Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm, Chelsea Green Publishing, Vermont
Clifford, A, 2018, Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature
Colquhoun, M & Ewald, A, 1996, New Eyes For Plants, Hawthorn Press
Cowan, Eliot, 1995, Plant Spirit Medicine, Swan Raven & Co.
Lewis, C. 1996. Green Nature, Human Nature. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Li Q, Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness
Louv, R. 2005. Last Child in the Woods. North Carolina: Algonquin Books
Louv, R. 2011. The Nature Principle. North Carolina: Algonquin Books.
Metzner R, Green Psychology, 1999, Inner Traditions – Bear & Company, Vermont
Miyazaki Y, Shinrin Yoku: The Japanese Art of Forest Bathing
Pollan, M. 1991. Second Nature. New York: Grove Press.
Roszak, T. 1992. The Voice of the Earth. Michigan: Phanes Press.
Roszak, T. 1995. Ecopsycology. Berkeley, CA: University California Press.
Selhub, E.and Logan, A. 2012. Your Brain on Nature. Toronto: Collins.
Tomkins & Bird. The Secret Life of Plants, Penguin.
Wilson, E.O. 1984. Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.