Written and compiled by Karin Demuth
Recently I took a walk in the forest, together with my 17-year-old godchild and her mother. While my godchild takes fancy pictures, my friend and I enjoy the peace and quiet, admire the beauty of the huge trees and the glittering snow on the branches. “A real forest bath,” sighs my friend happily. “What does forest bath mean?” asks my godchild in amazement, and my friend and I try to explain the term to her. All those who, like me, get their big and small moments of happiness from nature will feel confirmed. And let it inspire everyone else to take a trip into nature … even if, due to Corona, it may be only to the next park.
Measurable improvements through ‘forest bathing’
In the early 1980s, the Forest Agency of Japan began advising people to take strolls in the woods for better health. The practice was called forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, and it was believed to lower stress – but that hadn’t been proved. Some Japanese researchers set out to discover whether something special– and clinically therapeutic– happens when people spend time in nature. Since then, evidence has shown that spending time in nature is responsible for many measurable beneficial changes in the body.
Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a forest-therapy expert and researcher at Chiba University in Japan, found that people who spent 40 minutes walking in a cedar forest had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is involved in blood pressure and immune-system function, compared with when they spent 40 minutes walking in a lab. Obviously, spending time in the forest induces a state of physiologic relaxation.
Dr. Qing Li, a professor at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, found that trees and plants emit aromatic compounds called phytoncides that, when inhaled, can spur healthy biological changes. In his studies, Li has shown that when people walk through or stay overnight in forests, they often exhibit changes in the blood. Phytoncides increase the number of natural killer (NK) cells, a type of white blood cell that supports the immune system and is associated with a lower risk of cancer. NK cells are also thought to have a role in combating infections and autoimmune disorders and tamping down inflammation.
Relaxing in undemanding nature
A large June 2016 study found that nearly 10% of people with high blood pressure could get their hypertension under control if they spent just 30 minutes or more in a park each week. The fresh air could be one factor, since air pollution has been linked to a higher risk for heart attacks, but scientists think stress reduction also plays a part because nature is undemanding and it requires effortless attention to look at the leaves of a tree.
Looking at a stunning waterfall or undulating countryside can also elicit feelings of awe that bring a number of health benefits. In a 2015 study, researcher Paul Piff of the University of California, Irvine, found that regularly experiencing moments of awe has been linked to lower levels of inflammatory compounds in the body.
Everyday interactions with nature can also benefit. An April 2016 study of 44 cities found that urban areas with more parks scored higher on measures of community well-being. People in cities with lots of green space were more likely to report having more energy, good health and a sense of purpose too.
Fighting mood disorders and…
A small 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural setting, such as a forest or a nature park had lower activity in an area of the brain linked to depression than people who walked in an urban area. The exact mechanism of how nature helps mood disorders is unclear, but researchers agree that at the very least, time in nature tends to lift spirits. Another possibility is that the air near moving water, forests and mountains contains high levels of negative ions, which are thought to potentially reduce depression symptoms, according to a study in Frontiers in Psychology.
Small studies in kids with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have suggested that nature walks could be a potential natural treatment to improve attention. In one study, a team led by Kuo of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had kids with ADHD take three 20-minute walks, without their medication, in different locations: a park, a neighborhood and an urban area. When the researchers tested the children afterward, they found that after a park walk, the kids were able to concentrate substantially better than after a walk in the other settings. In a separate 2011 study, Kuo and her colleagues found that children who regularly played in outdoor areas had milder ADHD symptoms than children who played indoors or in areas with less nature access.
Before you start planning your escape to the countryside, consider this: “There is plenty of evidence that you will get a range of benefits even if all you can manage is putting a plant in your room or looking at trees through your window at home,” says the University of Queensland’s Shanahan.
One widely cited study of people recovering from abdominal surgery found that those with tree-lined views were released faster from the hospital, experienced fewer complications and required less pain medication than people whose rooms faced a brick wall.
Research shows that even if they’re artificial, the images, sounds and smells of nature can have positive health effects. Listening to nature sounds over headphones, for instance, has been shown to help people recover faster from stress.
Source: TIME, issue July 25, 2016, https://time.com/4405827/the-healing-power-of-nature/