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    What Is "Forest Bathing" and Can It Really Benefit Your Health?

    by Cody MacInnis - May 7 , 2018

    Photo Credit: by Kristina Campbell
    Photo Credit: by Kristina Campbell

    Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a Japanese forest gently walking down a well-kept path between tall green spruce trees. As two yellow birds playfully chirp on an overhead branch you inhale deeply, taking in the fresh forest air into your lungs and exhaling all of your worries away.

    This is all it takes to have a “forest bath”. Although at first forest bathing may seem to be a far fetched pseudo-therapy, the thorough scientific examination of the technique by research groups has convinced the Japanese, Scottish, and Swiss governments to openly support this technique and to recommend it to their populations in the hopes of increasing their mental and physical wellbeing.

    Recently, a group of researchers examined forest bathing—did time in the forest really have such positive effects? The participants were advised to refrain from drinking coffee or alcohol, or smoking cigarettes and to remain relatively silent throughout the forest experience in order to be better able to receive the soothing benefits of the forest atmosphere. One of the findings was that the overall stress levels of individuals taken for 80 minute walks in urban environments were higher after the walk, whereas the stress levels of the same individuals taken through a forest were significantly lower following a walk. The same study noted that the outdoor temperature and humidity would most likely play into the efficacy of the therapy.

    Considering that the creation and expression of many chronic mental and physical illnesses is related to excess stress, it is no surprise that individuals suffering from a variety of conditions can reap the benefits of walking through nature. Cardiovascular patients are one of the main groups that seems to benefit. In Lithuania a study on patients suffering from coronary artery disease found that a daily 30 minute walk in nature improved the overall condition of patients, and the researchers subsequently recommended that exercise in green forest spaces be implemented as a part of any cardiac rehabilitation program. Along with those who have cardiovascular disorders, individuals struggling with respiratory diseases, including asthma, see a marked improvement in symptoms following a two week period of daily forest walks. Also, a common finding among several studies was that groups taken for regular forest walks had increased immune system functioning, specifically as a result of a significant increase in natural killer (NK) cell activity; these cells’ purpose is to kill cancerous or virus-infected cells. As well, forest bathing may be capable of helping patients overcome depression and anxiety. A specific research trial determined that when clients with clinical depression were taken for regular forest walks that they had a 61% remission rate compared to a traditional hospital based psychotherapy group which had a 21% remission rate.

    One question that comes to mind is—would the type of trees in a forest directly impact the level of therapeutic benefits received from forest bathing? A Chinese study answered this question and determined that oak forests were significantly more beneficial than birch forests in their ability to reduce the anxiety of college students.

    Although, as they say, the “proof is in the pudding” with the benefits of forest bathing shown in multiple studies, the scientific community has yet to determine what exactly it is about forest bathing that creates these benefits. In an attempt to comprehend why forest bathing is psychologically beneficial certain scientists have taken an evolutionary psychological approach, and hypothesized that the relaxation benefits are the result of the thousands of years that early humans spent living in forest environments which has created a deep rooted need within the human psyche for contact with the forest environment. A group of researchers from Stanford and the Osaka school of medicine provided an explanation based on more immediate effects. Using an in vitro technique the team added trace amounts of various phytoncides (wood essential oils) to cells. They subsequently discovered a significant increase in the anti-cancerous perforin, granzyme A, and granulysin enzymes, which signified an increase in NK activity and improved immune system functioning. This implies that in a forest these NK cells could potentially be stimulated by the aromatic compounds in the natural forest air. As well, this could perhaps explain that the chemical basis of the aromas in forests dominated by specific trees could be influencing humans in different ways.

    However promising these findings may be, further clinical studies are needed to uncover the health benefits of forest bathing. Also, it would be beneficial for future research to be done to determine what specific aspects of the forest environment are the cause of the therapeutic benefits in order to use these elements to create therapies for individuals unable to access a forest. In the meantime, for those who have the chance, why not take advantage of nature’s medicine and get out there and enjoy that beautiful, fresh, forest air.


    Cody MacInnis is a writer currently studying the connections between biological and mental processes in Victoria, BC. His free time is spent outside enjoying the fresh Vancouver Island air.


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