Intuitively, we understand that we feel better in nature.
Research has shown that a specific way of spending time in nature, called forest bathing, has immense benefits to our physical and mental wellbeing.
What is forest bathing?
Nature provides many opportunities to help us be mindful and present.
What can we see? Notice the many shades of green and fractal patterns of leaves and branches.
What do we hear? Notice the orchestra created by the wind and leaves, the songs of birds or the crunching of frost beneath our feet.
What do we smell? Notice the various scents of pine, the earthiness of fungi or the memory-evoking smell of soil.
What do we feel? Notice the softness of moss with our hands, the tickling of the pine on our cheeks or the coolness of the wind on our skin.
And finally, what do we taste? We can sometimes taste the air or finish a forest bathing session with a taste of the woodland, such as with pine needle tea.
What are the origins of forest bathing?
Forest Bathing is known in Japan as shinrin yoku and was started in the 1980s when many Japanese people showed signs of being stressed and overworked due to what was called “technostress”.
As Japanese society became more reliant on technology, people were further removed from nature. Something needed to be done. With tree coverage of 67% and a culture that pays reverence to nature, Japan naturally looked to the forests. Forest bathing was born.
In 2004, Japanese government-funded research began to look into forest bathing and the results were impressive.
Research has continued and these studies showed that forest bathing has the potential to:
- Improve weakened immunity, with an increase in natural killer (NK) cells, white blood cells that attack tumours and infection
- Significantly decreased levels of stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline
- Reduce blood pressure
- Increase heart rate variability (HRV – an indicator of being in your parasympathetic nervous system state)
- Decrease blood sugar levels
- Increase anti-cancer proteins perforin, granzyme A and granulysin
- Increase hours of sleep
- Improve concentration and memory
- Improve levels of feeling of wellbeing
Benefits arise from two factors.
The first source of the benefits of forest bathing are phytoncides.
Walking in the forest exposes us to the forest’s natural aromatherapy. Phytoncides are the natural oils within plants and are part of a tree’s defence system, protecting it from pests and diseases. These same phytoncides are partly responsible for the benefits. The main components of phytoncides are terpenes, which include D-limonene (smells lemony), Alpha-pinene (has a fresh, piney scent), Beta-pinene (smells herby, like basil or dill) and Camphene (smells of turpentine, a resinous smell)
The second source of the benefits of forest bathing are mindfulness and meditation.
Mindfulness and meditation helps us switch from our sympathetic nervous system, or ‘fight and flight’, to our parasympathetic nervous system, or ‘rest and digest’. If you already practice mindfulness and meditation, you will know that the key to calming the mind down is to focus on your breath. However, it can sometimes be difficult just to focus on the breath. Nature provides many subjects for us comfortably and happily to focus on and helps us “be in the present”. Remember the sight, sound, smell, feel and taste sensory exercises I introduced earlier? They help us re-connect with nature. After all, humans have spent 99.9% of time in history in a natural (rather than urban) environment making nature a place where humans instinctively feel relaxed and comfortable.
So next time you are in the forest or woodland, see if you can slow down your walking pace and take time to notice what is around you.
Or to slow down fully, let a forest bathing guide help you do the thinking. Two to three hours of forest bathing every four weeks replenishes the benefits of forest bathing.
There are many places you can practice forest bathing.
Forestry England is one source that shares locations of woodlands near you. The National Trust has a wealth of locations to forest bathe. If you are near the Surrey Hills, Hinoki Forest Bathing provides guided forest bathing sessions, including sunrise and sunset sessions, that finish with a Japanese influenced woodland tea ceremony.
Let nature replenish and care for you and in turn be inspired to care for nature.
By Lisa Duncan, HINOKI Forest Bathing in the Surrey Hills