Forest Bathing Is Healing, So Soak It Up
Summertime is the perfect time to take a healing walk in the deep woods. A healing walk? Are we talking mushrooms and a very particular leafy green? Nope. It’s a concept called forest bathing — shinrin-yoku, translated from the Japanese. While I can’t report it’s all the rage in cities and towns across disgruntled America, it should be.
Forest bathing is a natural therapy for reducing stress. So are rice chips and margaritas for many of us, but with forest bathing comes the extra special bonus feature of boosting your body’s own ability to fight disease and resist infection.
Yes, you heard me: There is a growing mound of medical research supporting the ancient and traditional understanding that spending quiet time in the deep woods has healing power. Take it in and soak it up, and, over time, forest bathing will produce positive and quantifiable physiological changes.
And besides all that, it just feels so good. Walking through a dense forest. Noticing an ant. Watching a river meander and pool. People have been going into nature to heal since time pretended to begin. Now we’re a few steps closer to understanding why.
I was just leafing through my tattered copy of the Journal of Biological Regulators and Homeostatic Agents the other day, and there it was, another study showing that forest walkers have: lower concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol; lower blood pressure and heart rate; a reduced level of two more stress-related hormones, adrenaline and noradrenalin; and — drum roll, please — an increase in natural killer (NK) cells, helpful in your body’s fight against cancer.
City walkers, the scientists said, don’t show these same results. And a casual stroll in the garden won’t do it, either. For stress reduction, forest bathing experts recommend a two- to four-hour soak in nature, moving at a leisurely pace of two hours to cover about 1.5 miles, or 3 miles over four hours. To protect against cancers, says Qing Li, head researcher, he recommends you regularly spend three days and two nights in a forested area.
And how does forest bathing help boost your own healing power? The best theory so far, according to scientists at Japan’s Nippon Medical School and Chiba University, is this: Trees and plants produce organic compounds called phytocides to help protect them from disease, insects and fungus. These compounds escape into the air you breathe when you move through a forest — slowly, quietly, with an open heart and working lungs. And phytocides, it turns out, also help human’s turn on their own disease-fighting NK — natural-born killer — cells.
All this comes from a well-researched article by Maggie Spilner, author of “Prevention’s Complete Book of Walking,” who reports that the health benefits of forest bathing has been studied by medical researchers and forest organizations since 1984. There are over 30 officially designated forest therapy centers in Japan, “where people enjoy the trails and guided walks and receive free medical check-ups under the trees.” Can we get the Affordable Care Act to cover this?
“The resulting increase in NK cells lasted for 30 days,” Spilner reports, “(The researchers) concluded that a monthly walk in the woods could help people maintain a higher level of protective NK activity and perhaps even have a preventive effect on cancer generation and progression.”
If you do decide to head into the deep woods, know that there is a dark side. As your most personal trainer, I must warn you that while forest bathing showers you with vitality, it can also drown you in sorrow.
I’m talking ticks. This season, these tiny blood-sucking arachnids are thicker than ever, and the risk of Lyme disease is scary high. So please, self-protect: Cover your skin in light-colored, comfortable clothing — long pants, long-sleeved shirts, socks tucked into your boots, shirt tucked into your pants. Wear a hat.
Check your body carefully for ticks when you come in. If you see one, remove it mindfully. Investigate natural repellents: eucalyptus oil, bay leaves and Neem oil. If you have any suspicious symptoms (e.g. the dreaded bull’s-eye, aching joints, fatigue), see a Lyme-experienced doctor for advice and testing.
ENERGY EXPRESS-O! REPEAT THE WORD “UNITY” TO EXPERIENCE IT
“If you want to increase the healing effect of being in nature, it helps to change the way you think and feel about connecting with it.” — Michael Cohen, executive director of Project NatureConnect