Sometimes it feels like we suffer an endless stream of emails, social media notifications, chirping cell phones, and appointments. All these obligations divide our attention into incremental bits until there’s almost nothing left for us or our wellbeing. In our busy, over-stimulating world even just the thought of walking through a lush, peaceful forest can begin to soothe our frazzled nerves. This is our body’s way of telling us Forest Bathing may be exactly what we need.
Contrary to what the name suggests though, it doesn’t require stripping down and submerging yourself in a tub under a canopy of trees (although that doesn’t sound so bad, either), but simply walking calmly through a forest or natural area. Breathing deeply, taking in the scents, and noticing how the light dances through the leaves; this is all Forest Bathing, a preventative care technique that boasts benefits such as reduced stress, a boosted immune system, improved sleep, increased energy focus, and improved mood. It’s been gaining popularity since it was first recognized in Japan and South Korea in the 1980s. Studies over the past 30 years have proven that this simple activity reduces physiological stress and its accompanying illnesses.
At the start of a nature hike, most of us step out of the car, stretch out our arms, and take a deep breath of clean, fresh air. We let the scent of pine, cedar, or wildflowers wash over and through us and instantly we begin to relax. It turns out, this instinctual act helps us to take in phytoncides, the major player and “sciency” part of Forest Bathing. Literally meaning, “exterminated by the plant,” phytoncides are molecules emitted by plants that serve as a self-defense mechanism, discouraging anything that may want to eat or destroy them. Basically, they’re the aromatic molecules of plants and trees and luckily for us, just by exposure to them, we can share in those self-defense benefits.
As you may know, stress does nasty things to us. Prolonged exposure to stressful situations can promote the release of cortisol, the stress hormone that in large amounts and over time can cause depression, weight gain, anxiety, and weaken our immune system. Cortisol also suppresses our natural killer cells (NK cells), which sound scary but are actually super beneficial because these are the cells we need to fight cancer. They’re like little soldiers for our immune system, fighting off stressed, infected, and/or tumor-forming cells.
This is where phytoncides come in. They encourage NK cell activity, which decreases our stress hormone levels, boosts our immune system, and leaves us feeling healthier and happier. The sweet scents found in nature could literally be saving our lives. But it gets better! Phytoncides can be found in many essential oils of wood and plants, and while nothing can replace the benefits such as increased happiness, intuition, and mental clarity that come with immersing yourself in nature, this means we can still get some of the forest bathing benefits in between hikes.
Human health is inextricably linked to nature, but in our increasingly over-urbanized society we’re removing ourselves from it more and more. We are a product of the natural world having grown and evolved with it for millennia, putting our own bodies in sync with its natural rhythms. Our ancestors understood this human health-nature connection and we’re rediscovering this rhythm as we search for ways to heal a society plagued by stress. It’s no surprise then, that our path to wellness takes us right to where we first began: In nature.