Tree therapy is a thing. We’re exploring the practice of shinrin-yoku and the health benefits of its natural medicine.
My aunt and uncle loved to take my sister and me on little spontaneous adventures when we were small, and on this occasion, it was a picnic. We found the perfect picnic spot, nestled in the woods in the English countryside. My aunt was a chef, so we could always expect something truly yummy. The summer sun made the greenery glint in sporadic flashes. The ground was soft and brown, the air felt clean, and trees towered around us protecting our little spot of happiness. I remember seeing lots of butterflies and lots of ants crawling on the wool plaid blanket. My uncle would pick them off and pretend to eat them – they tasted like chocolate, he said, but we chose not to try. This moment was so different from our lives in busy London. It was slower, magical, and peaceful, and has such a lasting impact that I remember it clearly today.
There is something intuitive about the idea that time spent in nature is a good thing. A sense that we are reconnecting to our original state. It can be refreshing, calming, or awe-inspiring, and now research has shown that it is, in fact, healing.
A 2017 study by researchers at the University of Exeter, the British Trust for Ornithology, and the University of Queensland found that simply seeing more birds and trees is good for your mental health. However, to really engage in nature’s cleansing program, you might want to try practicing shinrin-yoku or forest bathing.
Forest bathing is the term coined by Japanese researchers in 1982, who found overwhelming evidence of the health effects of being in a forest. So much so that the government encouraged its citizens to practice shinrin-yoku to reduce the stress of urban living. And in a quest to get people to protect the forests, having felt its healing benefits. “Shinrin” means forest, and “yoku” means bath. In this case, bathing means basking in the atmosphere of the forest. So not striping and hopping into a bathtub in the middle of woods, though it’s a nice instagramable thought, but rather totally immersing your senses in the sights, sounds, and smells of nature.
…slow down, rest your mind, and be effortlessly entertained by your surroundings
The health benefits of forest bathing have solid science behind it from researchers across the globe. Forest bathing can boost your immune system, lower levels of cortisol – the stress hormone, improve sleep, promote mental clarity, reduce anxiety, anger, and depression. The list of benefits is hard to ignore since it ultimately reduces your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, and it’s free!
Shinrin-yoku is not about being active in nature; it’s about just being in nature and taking it all in. Learning how to slow down, rest your mind, and be effortlessly entertained by your surroundings. While you are doing that, your body is soaking in chemicals produced by trees called phytoncides that boost the tree’s immune system. These chemicals floating freely in the forest are working to boost your immune system too.
Leading shinrin-yoku researcher Dr. Qing Li is the Chairman for the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine. He has been investigating why health benefits occur after forest bathing since 2004. Dr. Li conducted a study in which phytoncides from trees were pumped into participants’ hotel rooms to see if there would be any effect in a more urban setting. He found increases in NK cells (Natural Killer cells), which help our bodies fight viral infections and control early signs of cancer. Although these results were only half a good as increases detected after being in an actual forest. Dr. Li found that taking people out forest bathing increased NK cells and the production of anti-cancer proteins the most.
Today, there are expert guides who can coach you in the practice of shinrin-yoku. They help find safe trails and teach you how to unplug from your tech-dominated world and tune into nature.
The main elements are turning off your phone, slowing down, allowing yourself to wander with no agenda, maybe touch a tree. You can do yoga, meditate, bird watch, or have a picnic, or just listen to the sounds, whatever works for you. The key is to immerse all the senses. Ideally, you’ll spend two hours, but even 20 minutes will improve your mood, according to Dr. Li.
Now that lockdowns have eased, it seems like it could be a good time to process that experience by forest bathing. Whether you hug a tree, sit in a park, or simply watch the birdies from your window, schedule time for some nature immersion, then let us know how you feel.
Note: Wildfires ravage our forests this time of year. Most fires are caused by humans. Please be mindful and respect the nature-space you’re in.