5 Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Forest Bathing

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path through a forest with tall trees and sunlight filtering in

Forest bathing as a practice dates back to the early 1980s when the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries coined the term.  “Shinrin-yoku” translated means clearing the mind while in the forest. Forest bathing (or shinrin-yoku) is about reconnecting with nature and restoring physical, emotional, and mental health.

Through enjoying the rich natural environment of a forest — the sights, sounds and smells — forest bathing can help you achieve a sense of well-being that enhances your life even after you leave the solitude of the woods.

Plus, walking through the forest has proven health benefits for human beings. Let’s look at how forest bathing can improve your health and well-being.

Stress Relief

Research shows that being in the forest reduces the activity of the sympathetic, or “fight-or-flight,” nervous system, the component that makes you feel anxious and stressed. Other research shows forest bathing reduces the symptoms of mental health issues such as depression.

Forest bathing is not just walking in the woods, but a form of deep relaxation. There are certain things you can do as you walk the forest, like take off your shoes at times and walk barefoot or sit under a tree and listen or touch the trees or plants around you. You could also meditate or do yoga while you are out in nature. These methods help clear your mind, focus better, and give you a sense of calmness and peace.

Immune Health Benefits

A 2010 study in the Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine journal found that by spending time in the forest, you’re exposed to phytoncides — airborne chemicals given off by plants, which have a positive effect on our immune systems. Inhaling phytoncides increases the activity of natural killer (NK) cells. 

Natural killer cells are a type of white blood cell which plays a vital role in the immune system. They are the first cells to respond to infection in areas of the body such as the skin and mucous membranes. This allows them to destroy cells infected with viruses or tumor cells. They’re part of the innate immune system, meaning they don’t need prior exposure to a virus or other pathogen to act. 

Forest bathing also improves immune health by lowering the stress hormone cortisol. The aforementioned study found that the benefits of forest bathing include an increase in NK activity that lasts 30 days after a visit to the forest. Forest bathing once per month could be enough to improve immune surveillance against viruses and other pathogens. 

Ease Muscle Tension

Most people are in a constant state of tension that causes their muscles to tighten, further contributing to stress. Walking in a leisure manner through a forest helps relieve muscle tension while providing the benefits of low-intensity exercise. If you sit at a desk most of the day, a trip to the forest is a way to reconnect with tranquility and nature.

Lower Blood Pressure

By balancing your autonomic nervous system, forest bathing can also lower blood pressure. A meta-analysis that analyzed 20 studies looking at the effects of a forest environment on blood pressure found that blood pressures were lower in this setting than in a non-forest environment.

Spending time in a forest or green environment activates the parasympathetic or “rest and relaxation” component of your nervous system, so your body goes into relaxation mode. This helps lower blood pressure and the body’s stress response. The study also found that middle-aged males experienced lower pulse rates when walking in a forest environment. Forest bathing may have numerous benefits for heart health by:

  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Reducing pulse rate
  • Lowering mental stress

Improved Sleep Quality

Another benefit of activating the parasympathetic nervous system and lowering the stress hormone cortisol is better sleep quality. Small studies show that forest bathing helps subjects relax and improves sleep quality. Plus, forest bathing is a natural approach to improving sleep, as it has only positive side effects.

The Bottom Line

When you go on a hike or take a walk in the woods, you are often focused on getting to your destination as quickly as possible. You may be lost in thought or listening to music while you walk. The idea behind forest bathing is to be present and aware of what’s around you in a non-judgmental way.

You can do this by taking your time and focusing on the sights, sounds and smells around you. Some people even choose to lie down and feel the texture of tree bark or grass under their skin. So, don’t rush through the experience. Be mindful and enjoy your stay in the forest — and come back often! 

References:

  1. Furuyashiki A, Tabuchi K, Norikoshi K, Kobayashi T, Oriyama S. A comparative study of the physiological and psychological effects of forest bathing (Shinrin-yoku) on working age people with and without depressive tendencies. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine. 2019;24(1). doi:10.1186/s12199-019-0800-1.
  2. Li Q. Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine. 2009;15(1):9-17. doi:10.1007/s12199-008-0068-3.
  3. Kim H, Lee YW, Ju HJ, Jang BJ, Kim YI. An Exploratory Study on the Effects of Forest Therapy on Sleep Quality in Patients with Gastrointestinal Tract Cancers. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2019;16(14):2449. doi:10.3390/ijerph16142449.
  4. Wen Y, Yan Q, Pan Y, Gu X, Liu Y. Medical empirical research on forest bathing (Shinrin-yoku): a systematic review. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine. 2019;24(1). doi:10.1186/s12199-019-0822-8.
  5. Li Q, Kobayashi M, Kumeda S, et al. Effects of Forest Bathing on Cardiovascular and Metabolic Parameters in Middle-Aged Males. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2016;2016:1-7. doi:10.1155/2016/2587381.
  6. Li Q, Kobayashi M, Kumeda S, et al. Effects of Forest Bathing on Cardiovascular and Metabolic Parameters in Middle-Aged Males. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2016;2016:1-7. doi:10.1155/2016/2587381.‌

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