The health benefits of spending time in nature can’t be overstated, but Americans spend 90% of their time indoors. While it was normal practice for our ancestors to spend time outdoors, current generations need to reconnect with nature. How can you spend more time in nature and boost your physical and emotional well-being? Consider Shinrin-Youku or forest bathing.
Shinrin in Japanese means "forest," and yoku means "bath." Thus Shinrin-yoku means forest bathing.
Also known as forest therapy, forest bathing is defined as total immersion in the forest atmosphere through all five senses.
Some potential benefits of forest bathing include decreased risk of heart disease, protection against cancers, and reduced levels of anxiety and depression.
You can easily incorporate forest therapy in your daily routine by walking in a forest or joining an eco therapy session.
When you first hear the term "forest bathing," you may think it involves some natural waterfalls or perhaps the use of tree leaves for bathing. However, this practice has a different meaning. It is defined as a total immersion in nature, using all of your senses — smelling the trees and flowers, hearing the birds singing, tasting some wild berries, touching a tree leaf, and feeling the wind in your hair.
Our ancestors naturally spent time in nature, gathering fruits and nuts, hunting, traveling, or performing various ceremonies. Later on, humans learned to cultivate the land and raise animals. They also spent a significant amount of time in nature. Nature or ecotherapy had been practiced for thousands of years as many cultures around the world recognized the importance of nature to human health. Even today, many people enjoy walking in the forest because of the quiet atmosphere, beautiful sceneries, pleasant aromas, and fresh, pure air.
Forest bathing in Japan
Japanese people are significantly affected by work-related stress and illnesses, as many employees work more than 80 hours of overtime a month, according to data released in 2016. Japan is also known for the phenomenon called karoshi, which describes death from overwork.
Therefore health authorities had to find an effective way to manage stress and prevent diseases. Scientists started to research the benefits of forest therapy over four decades ago.
Forest bathing is now a popular practice in Asia, particularly in Japan and South Korea, where it has become a part of the national health service programs, and doctors prescribe it. There are currently over 70 designated healing forests in Japan where people can go for therapy.
The benefits of forest bathing
In a 2022 study published in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, Japanese researchers described a newly created science called "Forest Medicine." The goal of Forest Medicine is to make a person more active, relaxed, happy, and healthy by visiting forests. Forest Medicine is a combination of alternative, environmental, and preventive medicine and studies the health benefits of using forest bathing.
The study highlighted 9 potential benefits of this therapy:
1. Cancer prevention and immune support. This practice has been associated with increased number and activity of natural killer cells, as well as an increase of some proteins with anti-cancer activities.
2. May help prevent high blood pressure and heart diseases. Scientific studies found that forest bathing helps reduce high blood pressure and heart rate.
3. May lower the levels of stress hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. This means that forest bathing could help manage stress.
4. May increase the level of adiponectin and dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS). Adiponectin is a hormone that plays key roles in metabolism, and lower levels of adiponectin have been linked with obesity, diabetes, heart diseases, and cancer. DHEAS is involved in the production of testosterone and estrogen and has anti-aging, anti-obesity, and anti-diabetic effects.
5. Helps balance the autonomic nervous system, a part of the nervous system that controls physiological processes like heart rate, breathing, and digestion.
6. May improve mental health and prevent depression. Forest therapy may decrease anxiety, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion.
7. Can be used in rehabilitation medicine. Patients in rehabilitation hospitals could experience lower levels of depression and anxiety if forest therapy is utilized. Even those who are unable to walk due to stroke or other types of injury could enjoy forest therapy in a wheelchair.
8. Increases exposure to phytoncides. Phytoncides are chemicals produced by trees that humans benefit from when in nature. While these special compounds are best known for their antimicrobial effects, they also seem to boost the immune system and improve sleep, mood, attention, and creativity.
9. Although more research is needed, researchers believe forest therapy has the potential to prevent effects of COVID-19, because this therapy boosts the immune system, improves heart function and metabolism, provides emotional health benefits.
Where to practice forest bathing?
The practice of nature therapy can be as simple as going in a park or natural environment and connecting with nature. Try to use all of your senses — smell, touch, feel, hear, and taste — to fully immerse in nature.
For a more in-depth experience, look for trained guides in your area, as there are ecotherapy sessions in many places across the US.