Could nature be a secret to wellness? Studies say yes

Forest bathing has been part of Japan’s national health program since 1982, and is all about immersing yourself in nature to become healthier. Think it’s a gimmick? Research is pointing to otherwise.

In Japan, a common prescription is sending patients out into the woods. Not for the exercise — although an extra endorphin boost never hurt anyone — but to go into nature, take deep breaths, and reconnect. Called shinrin-yoku, forest bathing has been an official part of Japan’s national health program since 1982, the medical way to unplug.

The idea behind it is as simple as its name: wander through nature. Open your senses. Walk slowly. Breathe. Rather than accomplishing something or tracking steps on a Fitbit, you’re just being.

As with any health trend, especially one so unassuming, there were sceptics, but in the past three decades, Japanese researchers have invested millions into the purported benefits.

Their findings so far? Forest bathing has been found to lower blood pressure, stress hormone production, and blood glucose levels. It’s also excellent at combating anxiety and depression, reducing stress and improving mood, and not just because you’re temporarily away from the office.

Being in the woods has a physiological impact on the human body, including reducing cortisol and calming the greater parasympathetic nerve and lower sympathetic nerve systems, meaning forest bathers are better rested and less inclined to feel stress.

The healing effects of simply being in nature has been found to support our immune system, particularly the human natural killer cells (NK) that aid in warding off cancer. In 2009, researchers from the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo measured the amount of NK cells before and after forest bathing. Significantly higher levels were found after time in nature, with benefits lasting up to a month after the experience. Among other critical purposes, NK cells are one of our main defenders against viral-infected cells and tumour formation.

Those who take part in forest bathing have also encountered faster recovery from surgery or illness, more energy, and improved sleep. Happiness levels in general seem to improve. Not bad for a prescription that comes without any side effects (or price tag).

Part of the benefit is due to phytoncide, or essential oils, that trees emit. Though they help protect the trees from germs and insects, they improve immune system functioning in humans.

It’s not a surprise that it took root so quickly in Japan — nature appreciation is a large part of their culture —but it’s become increasingly popular in places like the United States. In a world where we’re constantly plugged in, encouraged to do things for the sake of doing things, forest bathing offers a chance to step away and let our minds go blank with no other distractions or motives.

If you live in an area without a forest, don’t let the name dissuade you. Forest bathing is less about tracking down trees and more about the therapeutic benefits of being outside — any foray into pristine nature will do, whether you’re near the beach, desert, or city park.

Of course, another important aspect of a healthy lifestyle is diet. Our ready-made plant-based meals make it easy to eat healthy when you’re running between the office and the yoga studio, leaving plenty of time to squeeze in some forest bathing.

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Published: 14/08/17

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