Whether the practice is referred to Shinrin-yoku, forest bathing, or Forest Therapy, the science behind the practice remains the same: there are some elements in nature that benefit both the body and mind. These elements are in short supply in most towns and cities. Therefore, the ideology behind this practice is that the only way to experience the health benefits of nature is by walking through a forest. This was the inspiration behind the terpene-packed Forest personal essential oil diffuser.
While this form of therapy is often associated with Nordic countries, it actually started in Japan in the 1980s and has since spread throughout the world. At the time, the idea was closely connected with the native Shinto religion in Japan and was seen as an answer to high-stress work environments, increased suicide rates, and overall unhappiness with life in the city.1
Even before its formal introduction in Japan, it is believed that forest therapy has been used by humans for thousands of years. It may or may not have been intentional, but as long humans spent time in nature, they reaped the benefits of Forest Therapy.
Based on this trend in human history, the Japanese government explicitly introduced the idea of Shinrin-yoku in 1982, urging its citizens to make use of the 3,000 wooded miles available in the country for therapy. At the same time, the chief of the forestry ministry, Tomohide Akiyama, highlighted the benefits of wood on humans and that distance from nature may result in higher levels of illness.
While this was going on, an American scientist formulated a thesis explaining why nature positively affects human beings, regardless of where they’re from. Evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson published Biophilia in 1984, which provided explanations for the biological urge that compels humans to spend time in nature.2 He believed that human beings have evolved to love every form of life and the different processes that mirror human existence.
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In that same year, medical researcher Roger Ulrich published a study about how views through a window may influence recovery after surgery.3 According to a decade of records from a hospital in Philadelphia, patients with views of nature from their windows generally recovered faster than those who stared at city buildings.
So, forests had already generated scientific and medical interest in the 20th century when the initial studies specifically into Forest Therapy began in 1990 in Japan. In 2004, Qing Li, a professor at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, helped found the Forest Therapy Study Group with various academic organizations and the Japanese Government.
Today, Japan has 62 designated therapeutic kinds of wood and attracts over five million visitors annually, in addition to continuing to build a growing body of research about the benefits the practice provides. With time, Forest Therapy has evolved from a simple idea to include a worldwide following.
Secondary Metabolites and Terpenes
As most people know, there are a number of different types of forests. Some have many different tree species, while others have multiple levels with different canopies like jungles. However, all forests provide similar health benefits, with marginal differences.
The differences between the benefits that some forests provide are a result of aromatic compounds called terpenes, which are produced by plants and trees. Terpenes are an example of plant secondary metabolites, compounds which are not directly needed for a plant’s basic functions but required for long-term survival in the environment.
However, the topic of greatest interest when it comes to terpenes are the health benefits that these aromatic compounds can provide for humans, primarily through their use in essential oils.
How Forest Therapy Works
There isn’t really a wrong way to practice Forest Therapy. The only requirements are that you walk in the forest, take time to breathe deeply, and make a conscious effort to leave your troubles behind. Many people choose to do this by hiking established trails or camping, while others wander forests without a plan. Both methods allow individuals to reap the benefits that forest bathing provides.
Generally, one should plan to spend at least a few hours in the forest, but even trying to get in touch with nature during a lunch hour will allow you to reap some of the benefits. The longer that you spend in the forest, the better you’ll feel.
Now that it is understood that nature has beneficial biological effects, it is important to consider specifically what factors of forests contribute to these health benefits. Answering this question begins with analyzing the effects of Forest Therapy on the five senses.
Relax with Sight
This often seems like the most dominant sense when entering a forest. Following the basic requirements of the forest bathing requires moving patiently and taking the time to examine all of the sights in the forest. This includes the colors of the trees, the movement of insects, and the way the light bounces from one object to another.
The sense of sight can go a long way towards promoting relaxation. It can also encourage certain emotions and affects the brain in unique ways. In particular, certain colors are known to produce psychological effects. What’s most interesting is the effect of the color green, the most abundant color in forests. In addition to boosting creativity, the color green is believed to reduce stress and promote relaxation.4
Destress with Sound
Sound also plays an important role in the human mind. Consider how certain sounds can trigger a sense of alarm while others promote relaxation.
For instance, many people listen to audio tracks that feature the sounds of nature because they help reduce stress, and some researchers believe they have discovered why the sounds of nature have stress-reducing properties.
A 2017 study recruited 17 healthy adults and used brain scans, behavioral tests, and heart rate monitors to determine the effects of natural sounds on the individuals. The researchers found that the sounds of nature cause a physical change in the human brain that reduces the severity of fight-or-flight instincts.5
Let Go with Smell
Walking in the woods provides a range of aromatic benefits. The air is full of terpenes, which not only smell good but also influence mood and can make up for the terpene deficiency city dwellers likely experience.6
Different plants produce different chemical compounds with wide-ranging properties. For example, the terpene limonene, which smells like citrus, has been shown to promote emotional well-being in individuals, in addition to many other benefits.
Unwind with Touch
Hugging or touching a tree is surprisingly soothing. This act of affection is beneficial for humans, according to Li, as it engages the sense of touch and helps individuals benefit from the chemical compounds the tree produces. Forest therapy is all about connecting humans with nature, and touch works to deepen this connection.
Reflect with Taste
There are many delicacies in the forest, ranging from leaves and grasses to mushrooms and berries, and even bark that can flavor soup or tea. In Japan, restaurants adjacent to the designated Forest Therapy locations use different elements of the woods in their cooking.
However, unless it’s clear to you what the difference is between the poisonous and non-poisonous vegetation, it’s advisable to bring tea or healthy food from home and stop somewhere in the middle of the forest to consume it.
Benefits of Forest Bathing
The benefits that come from spending time in nature are both mental and physical. While many of the benefits come from a lack of pollution and increased the ability to declutter the mind, others come from physiological chemical processes. No matter which benefits you’re interested in, the more time you spend in the forest, the more impressive the results will be.
First in the mental health category is the ability of forest bathing to alleviate stress and anxiety, in addition to improving mood. Additionally, the practice has been shown to increase focus, boost energy, and promote a more positive outlook on life.
Many studies have been conducted to determine the relationship between Forest Therapy and cortisol (stress hormone) levels. One study revealed that a 20-minute forest therapy session reduced the cortisol levels of patients by as much as 13 percent. This study also noted a seven percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, a six percent decrease in heart rate, and a slight decrease in blood pressure.8
Additionally, spending time in nature has been shown to improve creativity and mental performance. In one study, a group of subjects performed 50 percent better on creative and problem-solving tasks after spending three days on a backpacking trip.9
These mental health benefits are one of the key reasons that the practice took off in Japan. In a country where burnout from work, academics, and society, in general, is common, a quick way to recharge was an instant hit.
With the trend now making its way through Europe and the United States, the same benefits are helping revitalize tired office workers, stressed out students, and even individuals who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Furthermore, the benefits of forest bathing are not only psychological but also physical. For example, spending time in nature has been shown to boost immune system function, maintain healthy blood pressure, and improve sleep quality.
A 2007 study aimed to determine whether Forest Therapy could be used to increase the number of natural killer (NK) cells in the body. An NK cell is a part of the immune system that protects the body from viral infections. Usually, NK cells provide rapid responses to viral-infected cells or the formation of tumors and are related to cancer prevention and immune health. The study concluded that a two-hour walk in the forest significantly increased levels of NK cells.10
In another study conducted in 2009, participants showed a significant increase in the activity of NK cells within a week of visiting the forest, and these positive effects lasted a month following exposure to the woods.
The physiological benefits of terpenes don’t just stop at supporting the immune system and improving sleep, however. There are more than 40,000 known terpenes, all of which provide a wide variety of benefits to the body, including reducing inflammation, relieving joint pain, alleviating back and neck pain, and a range of other benefits.11
In a 2015 study, two groups were studied during forest bathing. One group performed four-hour stretching and strengthening exercises, while the other didn’t. In the group that exercised, the pain of trigger points in the neck decreased significantly. However, the group that hadn’t exercised also reported reduced inflammation and pain, as well as increased range of motion.
Physiological Effects of Wood Aroma on Humans
In addition to the plants and trees, a key element of forest environments is the wood abundant on the barks of the trees that line the forest floor.
Many studies have been conducted indicating that the role of wood, in particular, is deeply rooted in human evolutionary history. These studies have also shown that Forest Therapy addresses an integral need for humans that is lacking in the modern world.
As humans have developed more advanced living environments, modern surroundings have become increasingly sterile and artificial. Researchers believe that this change in environment contributes to the epidemic of stress that modern humans are experiencing. Mental health issues have become increasingly prevalent over the last few hundred years, and there is solid evidence to indicate that part of the issue is a constantly-increasing detachment from nature.
One theory for why this could be the case is that an absence of plant life in the surroundings subconsciously suggests to individuals that they are in danger. Early humans relied on trees and plants for everything from food and water, to shelter and safety. A stark, urban landscape made of concrete and asphalt suggests to the human psyche that it’s out of its element, and the brain yearns for the familiar scenes of greenery that it instinctively correlates with safety and security.
Using the basis of aromatherapy as evidence that the chemical compounds found in inhaled natural substances provide health benefits, some evolutionary biologists are focusing their research on the effects of the smell of wood on humans.
Again, remember that the environments in which humans evolved were rich in trees, so it makes sense that humans would have a symbiotic relationship with trees in a similar way that modern humans interact with fruit-bearing plants that provide nutrition.
While early studies performed on the effects of wood aroma on humans focused only on one variable, recent studies have become more comprehensive. Individuals evaluated for reactions to wood aromas are now subjected to a variety of tests, including autonomic nervous, endocrine, brain, and immune system activities. These markers provide scientists with a more complete picture of how wood aromas affect the human brain and body.
One such study was conducted with Taiwan cypress wood essential oil. In this study, male university students were monitored for heart rate, blood pressure, brain activity through an ECG, and brain function through a letter cancellation test during olfactory stimulation with wood chips. The scent of the wood was then diffused into the chamber in levels ranging from weak, easily-sensed, or strong.
Participants consistently saw a significant reduction in blood pressure, an average of six percent, in addition to a four percent increase in brain function. The study also found that levels of hormones associated with anxiety and stress, like adrenaline and cortisol, declined upon exposure to the scent of the Taiwan cypress wood.12
Studies like this provide strong evidence that wood oils are an effective and underused tool that could provide a range of health benefits to individuals. Additionally, they support the idea that essential oils made from wood are an effective way of providing the olfactory system with some of the sensations it’s looking for.
Why You Should Try Forest Bathing
If one of the scenarios described below sounds familiar too, then you may want to try forest bathing and experience the health benefits this practice provides.
- You work in a high-stress desk job, are not very active, and have trouble sleeping.
- You have a history of heart disease in your family and are worried that you aren’t doing enough to keep yourself healthy.
- You feel yourself becoming sadder, more stressed, or anxious.
- You are always tired, seem to get sick all the time, and you can’t seem to get enough energy to get through the day.
- You are a student who is trying to make it through finals but feel like the stress that you are experiencing is hurting you in ways that you can’t even describe.
- You feel unmotivated and frustrated, or as if you’re just going through the motions of life without truly enjoying the day-to-day moments.
Waking up ready to take on the day only to experience only to think about some of the preoccupations listed above is sure to prevent you from getting the most out of each day. On the other hand, identifying and addressing these issues can set you on the path towards a future where you not only wake up every day ready to take it on, but maintain that energy, vigor, and productivity throughout the rest of the day.
The mental and physical health benefits that forest bathing promotes can help you better handle some of the obstacles that stand in your way and help set you on this path. The best part of forest therapy is that it can be experienced anywhere in the world, as long as there are trees. Additionally, an individual doesn’t necessarily have to be in a forest. Breathe natural peace with MONQ’s Forest blend. The benefits of secondary metabolites can be experienced anywhere in nature, from a garden to a nearby park, or even by diffusing essential oils in the home.
Photo credits: IngaLinder/shutterstock.com, DovzhykovAndriy/shutterstock.com, Twinsterphoto/shutterstock.com, RomanSamborskyi/shutterstock.com, Day2505/shutterstock.com, Ervin-Edward/shutterstock.com