Forest bathing: how nature makes us happier

How nature relieves stress and makes us more connected to our inner being


Marianna Kilburn
@MariannaKilburn


08 August 2017

What is forest bathing?

You might be thinking that forest bathing involves jumping into a bath filled with leaves and twigs, but actually it involves surrounding yourself in a natural environment, detaching yourself from mobiles and electronic devices and being present in nature. Forest bathing, or shinrin yoku, is a term that was developed in the 1980s in Japan and means ‘taking in the forest’s atmosphere.’1 Nature can heal; it can improve our health, our relationships, reduce stress, and make us happier and more creative.

The healing power of trees – the benefits of forest bathing

• Reduced blood pressure
• Reduced stress hormone production
• Boosted immune system functioning
• Increased energy
• Improved sleep
• Increased ability to focus
• Increase in sense of happiness2

Why we should have a forest bath – the science behind nature

Forest bathing relaxes you
Forest bathing has been scientifically shown to reduce the physiological effects of stress in the body. It reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol as well as lowering blood pressure. Forest bathing decreases levels of adrenaline and dopamine, suggesting that it has a relaxing effect on the body.

One study found that forest bathing significantly reduced heart rate as well as levels of depression, fatigue, anxiety, and confusion.

The study revealed a significant increase in adiponectin, a serum protein hormone produced by adipose tissue. Lower than average levels of adiponectin have been associated with several kinds of metabolic disorders including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.3

It can boost your immune system
Forest bathing can boost your immune system through breathing in the forest air. Forest air is fresher than air inside buildings or in cities because it contains phytoncide, a natural essential oil emitted by plants and trees to protect themselves from harmful insects and germs.4

Phytoncide contains antibacterial and antifungal qualities which help plants to fight disease. When we breathe in these chemicals, our bodies increase the number and activity of white blood cells called human natural killer cells (NK)5 which kill tumour and virus-infected cells in our body.
 
You are breathing in more oxygen-rich air
Trees release oxygen when they use energy from sunlight to make glucose from carbon dioxide and water.6 Trees provide us with the oxygen we breathe; we would not be able to exist without them! Forest air is less likely to contain pollutants and is more likely to be oxygen-rich than air found in cities or in buildings.

You are unplugged from devices
Detaching yourself from the 2D world of computers and mobiles and engaging in the real world can do amazing things for your health!

Studies have found that being detached from the natural world and completely engrossed in mobile phones and computers puts stress on the pre-frontal cortex in the brain. The demanding nature of electronics can leave us feeling distracted and cognitively fatigued.7

Being outside and separated from our devices for as little as 25 minutes has been shown to boost our brain functioning and make us feel more focused and alert. Plus it also gives our eyes time to rest and recover from those pesky screens!

It can make you more creative
Our environment plays a fundamental role in how we think and behave. Nature has always been a source of inspiration for hundreds of thousands of people including poets, musicians, artists – even scientists! Albert Einstein once said ‘look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.’ Sir Isaac Newton discovered gravity in nature when he saw an apple falling from a tree! Writers of the Romantic era constantly used the forces of nature to shape and influence their work.

‘To find the true quality of life, live in harmony with nature and be aware of nature’s powers.’ – Alfred Vogel

What is it about nature that inspires us? Why does it make us feel more creative?
The exact reason is unknown, however, there are a couple of theories. One study found that people responded 50% more creatively to problems after spending more time in nature and less time on electronic devices.8 The study suggested that this advantage was due to an increased exposure to natural stimuli that are both emotionally positive and low-arousing.

Our increased levels of creativity could also be due to a decrease in exposure to technology which can do all of our problem-solving and multi-tasking for us.

How to forest bathe without the forest

So forest bathing sounds great – but what should you do if there isn’t a handy forest at the end of your street? If you don’t know where your nearest forest is check the Woodland Trust website which has a handy map highlighting all the forests in your area.

However, not all of us live near forests, particularly if we live in the city, so how do we reap all the amazing benefits of forest bathing without the forest? While it is more ideal to forest bathe in a vast forest made up of thousands of trees, it’s not always practical!

Here are a few ways that you can forest bathe without the forest:

Visualisation. Technically, you can forest bathe just about anywhere using visualisation. If you are stuck inside a windowless building all day take 5 minutes to close your eyes and focus on breathing deeply and visualise a forest.

Natural lighting. Wherever you are, whether you are at work or at home, try to surround yourself with natural, soft light instead of artificial lighting.

Brew a herbal tea. Brew herbs from your own garden to feel to connect to the environment.

Potted plants. As I have mentioned above plants contain phytoncide, which have antifungal and antibacterial properties and help to increase the number and activity of NK cells. Having lots of potted plants at your work desk or in your home will help to recreate a forest-environment and make the air you breathe feel fresher.

1 http://www.shinrin-yoku.org/shinrin-yoku.html
2 http://www.shinrin-yoku.org/shinrin-yoku.html
3 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4963577/
4 http://forest-therapy.net/healthbenefits.html
5 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20074458
6 http://www.sciencefocus.com/qa/how-many-trees-are-needed-provide-enough-oxygen-one-person
7 https://www.outsideonline.com/2062221/new-science-creative-brain-nature
8 http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0051474

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