There are plenty of pills to lower your blood pressure and boost your immune system, but what if it’s simpler than that? Japanese research into “forest therapy” suggests that spending regular time outside, amid trees and greenery, can do wonders for your health.
Forest therapy– also known as shinrin-yoku or forest bathing– simply means spending time in green spaces. Japanese studies show that this lowers your blood pressure and cortisol level, a stress-related hormone, and increases your immune system defenses.
Though forest bathing is just beginning to get more attention in the US, lowering your stress without pills is nothing new. Other means of tackling stress naturally include working out regularly, eating a balanced diet, and participating in artistic activities.
Research on Health Benefits
The Japanese have practiced forest therapy since 1982, when the Forest Agency of the Japanese government created an initiative encouraging people to spend more time in nature.
That first plan didn’t have the body of research behind it that now exists: The government based the program Shinto and Buddhism, as well as simply the perception that nature was conducive to good health.
However, Dr. Yoshifumi Miyazaki, of the University of Chiba, has conducted an impressive array of studies demonstrating the very real health benefits of forest bathing. As discussed in Outside Magazine, Dr. Miyazaki has found that walking in the forest can have the following effects, among others:
- A 12.4 percent decrease in cortisol levels
- A seven percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity
- A 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure
- A 5.8 percent decrease in heart rate
Qing Li, at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, has also done extensive research on forest therapy, focusing on the immune system. He wanted to find out whether spending time in nature could increase a person’s natural killer immune cells (NK cells), which help us fight off viruses and even tumors.
Li’s research showed that not only does spending time walking or camping in the woods increase your NK cell count, but it leaves lasting effects, causing an up to 15 percent boost in cell count a month after “exposure” to the forest.
A number of theories account for nature’s ability to calm us down and boost our immune systems.
According to The Japan Times, Dr. Miyazaki attributes some of nature’s positive effects to our origins: “Humans had lived in nature for 5 million years. We were made to fit a natural environment. So we feel stress in an urban area.”
The doctor also pointed to his research on the nervous system, which showed that forest therapy activates people’s parasympathetic, or “rest and relax,” nervous system. Essentially, walking in the woods allows the frontal cortex, which is associated with the sympathetic nervous system, to relax. We use that part of the brain for cognitive and executive functions, so it’s often taxed for much of the day. After a stroll among the trees, participants were not only better able to focus, but they scored higher on creativity tests, meaning other areas of the brain were engaged.
Li, on the other hand, showed that trees’ scent has a direct health benefit. As strange as it sounds, the ) you inhale while forest bathing have been shown to increase immune system cell counts in multiple studies, as well as when administered to NK cells in a petri dish.
How to take advantage of forest bathing
According to the World Bank, almost 70 percent of Japan is covered in forested land, making it a relatively easy proposition to get out into nature.
However, that’s not the case in every country. The United States is 33 percent forested land, while many countries have significantly smaller percentages. If you live near a park or other green space, it may just be a matter of adjusting your schedule: even walking under trees can have benefits, according to researchers, so make a point to get outside at least a few times a week.
If you don’t have easy access to the forest, studies show that gardening, walking near water, or even just looking at pictures of forests and trees can have some of the same health benefits. Using essential oils in your home may also provide some immune benefits.
And of course, if you have the chance to go to Japan, go to an official Forest Therapy site. You can participate in classes like dietary management, aromatherapy, or hydrotherapy– or you can just relax and take in the view.