Today, forest therapy is growing in popularity and provides the modern technophile with a chance to relax the mind and synchronize the body’s biological rhythm to the frequencies of the forest.
Origins of Forest Bathing
Today, the practice of Forest Bathing as we know it comes from the Japanese tradition of Shinrin-Yoku, which involves consciously, intentionally, and intuitively wandering the forests to immerse the mind and body in the regenerative atmosphere. 1
Don’t confuse forest bathing with just wandering around in the forest, however. Intentionality is the operative word, and there are guides and experts who can instruct the novice forest bather in the proper practices of cleansing their mind and body. This is done through a series of techniques applied to navigate the environment with all the senses.
There are forces at work in the forest that has a great effect on human health, if allowed to take full sway over the mind and body. The sounds, textures, and refreshing forest air can dispel stress, banish fears, and soothe senses rubbed raw by a fast-paced and often chaotic society.
Effects of Forest Bathing on Human Health
The benefits of Forest Bathing are far more pervasive than a momentary break for the senses.
Studies have shown that Forest Bathing or forest therapy boosts immune system function and supports the activity of cancer-fighting Natural Killer (NK) cells 2 . The body’s levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline, the internally-produced “stress hormones” can also be controlled with regular forest therapy trips. 3
The scientific communities are still learning much about forests and their therapeutic properties. There is still much to learn, but clinical and anecdotal evidence postulates many reasons why forest can prove to be beneficial for overall health.
Trees and the shapes and forms found in the forest relax the eyes and conjure up soothing feelings that can’t be found in a world of straight lines and right angles. Then, there is the cheerful call of the songbirds and babbling of water trickling by that resonate at frequencies that are naturally compelling to the ears.
However, there is another reason behind the unbelievable health benefits found in the forest environment. When you inhale a deep breath of forest air, much higher amounts of oxygen and nitrogen fill your lungs. Additionally, forests control their environment by releasing different types of aerosols into the surrounding air.
When practicing forest bathing, the individual meanders through a shower of forest aerosols, which are primarily comprised of terpenes —organic aromatic compounds that also contribute to the healing properties in essential oils. 4
Traditionally, essential oils have been used to address a wide variety of human health concerns. And though essential oils have their range of benefits, it is the terpenes inside the oils that determine their effects on the body.
Highlighted below are some of the most popular forests used for Forest Bathing around the world, as well as the health benefits of the primary terpenes they offer.
A-Pinene in the Yakusugi Forest – Yakushima Island, Japan
If you are lucky enough to find yourself in the south of Japan, don’t pass up the opportunity to trip to the beautiful Yakushima Island, home to one of the world’s most ancient forests. The mystical moss-covered cedars of the Yakusugi forest create a unique atmosphere that visitors from around the world travel to experience.
The Yakusugi forest is also an important location for the Japanese Shinrin-Yoku culture as well. The cedars found in this region are over 1,000 years old and the warm subtropical atmosphere and diverse assortment of trees and plant life creates a beneficial blend of terpenes.
One of the most prominent terpenes present in Japanese cedarwood is called alpha-Pinene and is the aromatic compound that makes cedar wood and pine trees smell as they do. Some of us may associate the scent of a-Pinene with the festive atmosphere of a Christmas tree.
A-Pinene has also been studied extensively for its capacity to affect the senses in a powerful way. On intentionally stressed-out lab rats, a-pinene was observed to initiate soothing physiological and behavioral responses. 5
When studies were performed on a group of young female adults in Japan, a-Pinene was inhaled as part of aromatherapy and its effects recorded and studied. The olfactory stimulation induced by aromatherapy with a-Pinene increased the high-frequency (HF) component of heart rate variability (HRV) in the tests subjects. The HF component has been linked to improved parasympathetic activity in the nervous system. The test subjects also experienced reduced heart rate as part of the relaxing effects of a-Pinene inhalation.
This study demonstrated that inhalation of a-Pinene has a significant impact on physiological and psychological relaxation. 6
Limonene in the Rocky Mountains, Colorado; Monti Cimini, Italy; Black Forest, Southern Germany
If you were to visit the forests in the Rocky Mountains, Southern Germany, or just a few miles North of Rome, the mental and physical effects will leave you elated. Trees native to these regions have captured the minds and imaginations of writers, filmmakers, great conquerors, and poets.
During the fall, the deciduous trees in these forests react to the shortening days and lengthening shadows with a spectacular display of colors which includes red, blue, violet, and orange. However, the best time to enjoy this aromatic regeneration of mind and body is in the summer when terpene emissions are at their highest.
Limonene is the primary terpene found in this region and is known for alleviating stress and anxiety. As its name implies, limonene is found abundantly in lemons, limes, and most other citrus fruits. In addition to its sweet and sharp citrus fragrance, limonene has spicy peppermint-esque overtones. This aromatic substance also has applications in the perfume and cosmetic industries. 7
Pine trees are abundant in these mixed forests, and these species are some of the most prolific producers of the terpene limonene. Limonene is the second most abundantly-produced terpene in nature, with alpha-Pinene being the first. This may hint at the significance of its importance for human health and well-being. 8
Clinical studies suggest limonene could be a key player in the ongoing battle against cancers, while also exhibiting anti-anxiety properties.
In one study, a group of laboratory mice was placed in a forced swim test to measure their mental clarity and capacity for decisive action in times of high stress. Some of these mice had been provided with supplementation that included limonene inedible and subcutaneous administration. 9
When the test waters rose and mice were faced with a sink or swim situation, those rats taking limonene-based supplements performed better. They were able to complete the task with less apprehension and hesitation to the fearful flood waters.
In another study published in the Cancer Prevention Journal, limonene treatment was given to patients suffering from breast cancer. The study concluded that limonene administration resulted in significant changes to several metabolic pathways, related to changes in tissue level cyclin D1 expression. Further studies are being conducted on how the use of limonene in treatment for breast cancer can advance moving forward. 10
Linalool in the Cumbres del Ajusco, Mexico
High in the elevated slopes beyond the populous Mexico City is the Cumbres de Ajusco National Park, an expansive forest that attracts visitors from around the world for extreme sports and wilderness adventures, in addition to a range of health benefits.
Studies performed in 2008 and 2009 showed significant production of the terpenes a-Pinene and linalool in the region, levels of which rise and fall with the seasons. The production of these terpenes primarily comes from special species of sacred fir and patula pine native to this region. 11
The monoterpene linalool is every bit as beneficial as a-Pinene and is found in over 200 different plants including lavender, myrrh, and lemongrass. Due to the linalool content in the essential oils derived from these plants, they all have analgesic properties that reduce the intensity of pain.
Studies have shown that linalool has antinociceptive properties, meaning it can effectively block the body’s pain receptors from sending messages. Additionally, linalool also has potent anti-inflammatory properties. 12
An exploration of the effects of linalool found in the lavender plant has shown that it has the capacity to reduce tension and induce relaxation. 13
Something interesting about linalool is that it’s actually one of the most common household fragrances. If you were to check the labels on your soaps, shampoos, and detergents, you’ll find that linalool is the perfume ingredients in over 80 percent of all products.
Camphene and Cineol in the Boreal Forests, Eastern Finland
If there is a country in the world that could be rightly be called the “forest kingdom,” it would be Finland. Finland is a fairly large country with over 74.2 percent of its surface coated in a luscious layer of the forest.
If you find yourself lucky enough to explore the Boreal Forests, you will find yourself introduced to a spectacular array of indigenous trees with the most common being varieties of pine spruce and birch trees. One of the most notable trees in these woods is the stately Betula Pendula , or silver birch. 14
Two especially prolific terpenes that permeate the chilly Finnish forests include camphene and cineol, along with copious amounts of limonene and a-Pinene. 15
Camphene was the subject of a 2011 study focusing on the link between camphene and the reduction of triglycerides and cholesterol levels in the blood. High levels of LDL—bad cholesterol—and triglycerides in the blood have been linked to conditions such as heart disease. 16
The study went on to compare the effects of other terpenes on blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Linalool, myrcene, and a-Pinene were all tested, but none had the same efficacy on reducing triglycerides and cholesterol levels as camphene.
Ultimately, the study concluded that camphene was one of the finest alternative lipid-lowering agents and deserves further consideration and evaluation. 17
On the other hand, cineol—sometimes called eucalyptol —is a brain-boosting terpene with a fresh minty smell that is used extensively in aromatherapy because of its capacity to clear the airways and improve breathing, especially for those with congestion and inflammation.
Cineol is also found in different plants and their essential oils, such as rosemary essential oil, and has been the subject of studies about its role in improving cognitive function.
According to a 2012 study, cineol works to improve memory and enhance learning capacity. 18
Myrcene in the Bijarim Forest of South Korea
South Korea enjoys a balmy subtropical climate and extensive array of trees in their abundant forests. Visitors wandering the shady groves of Bijarim Forest in South Korea will see a remarkable array of Japanese red pines, Korean pine, and Japanese larch.
The Japanese red pine is by far the most abundant tree in the coniferous forests of South Korea, and it has been studied for the range of terpenes it produces. A-Pinene is the abundant terpene, followed closely by myrcene. 19
Myrcene has an earthy and musky aroma and is commonly found in hops. It can also provide fruity or balsamic flavor profiles when used in the food industry. In terms of its health benefits, myrcene is known for its sedative effects. 20
It has become evident in this modern day and age that better mental and physical health may not be that difficult to attain. In fact, a lot of health benefits can be achieved simply through a walk in the woods or the use of essential oils containing some of the same terpenes.
Consider visiting one of these forests, or a forest of your choice on your travels or near your hometown, or try out some of these essential oils topically or aromatically in a room diffuser.