Forest bathing - the nature therapy trend

Girl taking in nature in the forest for relaxation, health and wellbeing

The powers of Mother Nature have long been touted as having soothing and revitalising effects on the soul, but one nation's therapy homage to all things green has sparked a new wellbeing trend thanks to the amazing - and surprising - results.

The practice of forest bathing originated in 1982 in Japan as part of a public health programme, and was termed shinrin-yoku (loosely translated as forest bathing) by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

The concept has made waves in the media of late, featuring in The Times, The Telegraph, CNN and Conde Nast Traveller, to name just a few. The Washington Post called it America's 'latest fitness trend', comparing it to the way yoga swept east across the country after being established in California 30 years ago. Why so popular?

Throughout a large period of history (we're talking MILLIONS of years), humans spent every second outdoors in the natural environment, according to a National Institutes of Health study. It's only over the past couple of centuries that urbanisation began to occur and human environments changed dramatically.

Indoor living has led to a rise of sedentary living, which has also paralleled the rise in chronic illness; one out of three Americans has a chronic illness, recent studies show. The rates of obesity, depression and anxiety are also growing ever higher in children, a worrying alarm bell that balance needs to be redressed quickly to prevent the situation worsening.

Step forward forest bathing - a simple, accessible, yet extraordinarily effective solution. Sometimes going back to basics really is the best way of moving forward...

The Forest Therapy Society was founded in 2008 by a research group that reviewed studies about the positive health benefits of the forest on the human body. The society has conducted numerous psychological and physiological experiments across Japan and has certified 62 sites as “Forest Therapy” sites for this purpose. Participants spending time at the sites had their heart rates and blood pressure measured, and the results were shown to be significantly favourable in comparison to urban environments.

Secretary General Myra Suzuki told The Independent during an interview (December 2017) that their aim is for forest therapy to be a part of rehabilitation. “Forest therapy is not about hiking or mountain climbing” she said, “Even those who can’t traverse steep and narrow paths can benefit from the forest. A favourite saying of Japanese guides is, ‘The forest is good for the body, and there are no side effects’.”

Outside Japan, forest-bathing has been embraced as a hot new wellness trend. You can even now hire a guru to lead you in meditation and mindfulness as you wind through the mossy forest paths. But it can be much simpler to obtain the full benefits: all you really need is a forest, and a little time to dedicate to nature. Open all five senses to your surroundings, breathe deeply, and walk mindfully to enhance health and happiness, taking in the gentle rustle of leaves, the soft breeze on your face, sunlight dancing through the trees or the velvety feel and natural beauty of flower petals.

Forest bathing is not just about relaxing the mind. Studies have found when comparing biodata with city-dwelling populations, that those that participated in forest bathing had lower concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, lower blood pressure, lower heart rates and increased immunity.

A study from 2009 in South Korea looked at three groups of people suffering from depression and put them through therapy sessions in three different environments - a forest, a hospital, and, as a control group, regular outpatient therapy. After 4 weeks of treatment, the forest group saw a 61% remission rate - much higher than those at the hospital (21%) or in the control group (5%).

Research has revealed a physical interaction occurring between people and the trees around them. After forest bathing trip, we have significantly higher numbers of natural killer (NK) cells, a type of lymphocyte that boosts the immune system’s defences against viruses and cancers. That boost lasts more than seven days after the trip - and if you spend two or three days in the woods, for example, camping, elevated levels are present in the body for a further 30 days.

Researchers have suggested that the immune boost is at least in part a result of exposure to phytoncides, a substance with antibacterial and antifungal qualities, emitted by plants and trees to protect themselves from germs and insects.

Forest air doesn't just feel fresher - while in the woods we inhale a healing elixir of health-boosting bioactive substances released by plants. One of these groups of substances is called terpenes. Terpenes are usually emitted from leaves, pine needles, tree trunks, and the thick bark of some trees, but they also emanate from bushes, herbs, and shrubs, along with mushrooms, mosses, and ferns, too.

We absorb terpenes through our skin, and more significantly, through the lungs. Although nature's communication system, our immune system can also decode them, and like other plants, responds by strengthening our defence systems - promoting anti-inflammatory, anti-tumour, and neuroprotective activities, as well as lowering our cortisol levels.

Other benefits of forest bathing according to the experts include;

- reduced mental fatigue

- increased happiness, improved mood and self-esteem

- improved ability to cope with pain

- increased creativity

Observing the changing seasons and taking in the great outdoors will replenish your entire being, and with summer on the way, what better time to start indulging in nature's gifts!

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