Have you ever noticed that you feel so much better when you’re on holiday and out in the wilderness? That carefree feeling is something that is incredibly refreshing. It’s easy to attribute it to being away from work, and having the freedom to relax and switch off for a while. There could be a lot more to it than that, though. Scientists are learning more and more about the impact that forests and nature can have on our physical and mental wellbeing. The latest research suggests that simply spending time in a forest is good for you in more ways than one.
The Paleo Air Movement
If you grew up in the 80s or 90s, then you are probably old enough to remember hearing about sick building syndrome on the news. Spending time in cramped, stuffy offices isn’t good for us. City air isn’t exactly refreshing either, even with improvements to emission laws to stop the nastiest gas-guzzling vehicles from contributing to pollution.
The concept of paleo air is simple. Our ancestors lived in forests and ate a diet that was rich in fruits, berries, vegetables, etc. We evolved to live in that kind of environment, so it’s natural that spending time in that environment would be good for us both physically and mentally. Just as the paleo diet supports getting back to basics, those who are proponents of paleo air say that our modern environment is not the environment that our body wants to spend time in.
Supporters of the idea of paleo air believe that “forest bathing” – simply going for a walk in a forest, or lying down and relaxing for a few minutes surrounded by greenery – can be beneficial to our health. Indeed, the Japanese believed so strongly in the idea that they created a national public health program based on it in the 1980s. It’s an interesting idea, and it is backed by science.
The Power of Terpenes
The Japanese government has spent a lot of money exploring the benefits of forest bathing and the science behind it. One study conducted in 2009 was focused on the activity of the NK cells in the immune system.1 These cells respond to the formation of tumors and to viral infections, and researchers found that spending time in a forest boosted the activity of NK cells significantly a week after the visit and that the response remained elevated for about a month. So, going for a weekend break in the forest once a month could boost your immune system and even potentially help to fight off cancer.
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Plants contain a number of essential oils which belong to several families, including terpenes, which serve several functions. Trees emit them to protect themselves from pathogens and insects, but nature tends to make sure that everything it does has more than one purpose, and it’s not just the plants that benefit from phytoncide – humans do too. A 2010 study conducted by Japanese researchers found that people who are exposed to forest air benefit from a reduction in cortisol levels, have reduced blood pressure, and also reduce sympathetic nerve activity.2 Forest bathing doesn’t just boost your immune system, it’s a great stress buster too.
Terpenes are an aromatic organic compound. They’re the things that give essential oils their distinctive aromas, and they’re the things that make herbal remedies effective. Today, terpenes are getting a lot of attention in the mainstream media because of the popularity of CBD oil, but terpenes and essential oils have a long history. Chamomile, orange, and other essential oils all owe their beneficial impacts to the presence of terpenes such as myrcene and limonene.3 Those terpenes can be relaxing, immune boosting, or even have antimicrobial or antioxidant effects.4
The benefits of walking in a forest don’t just come from the terpenes, though. Walking, in general, has been found to have positive mental health effects.5 Walking is a form of exercise, and it can help to reduce anxiety and stress. If you don’t want to pay for a gym membership, and you don’t like team sports, then why not try to find some time to go for a walk around the park a couple of times per week. You don’t need any special equipment to go walking, it doesn’t take a lot of time, and it will have a lasting positive impact on your health.
Forests and Modern Living
If you’re lucky enough to work near a park, live near a forest, or have the means to go off on weekend breaks, then spending some time in the forest could have a huge beneficial impact on your life. Sadly, not everyone does. Those who live in built-up cities, and who do not drive, are at a huge disadvantage. Studies into the city vs suburban living 6 and city vs rural living 7 show that the impact of where you live on your overall wellbeing is a complex thing. Access to health care and amenities, average salaries, social isolation, crime, and other factors all combine to influence a person’s physical and mental wellbeing. Yes, living near a forest might mean that you can go for a nice walk and breathe in some refreshing terpenes. If the other socio-economic factors are stacked against someone, however, then they may still find that their wellbeing suffers.
If you live in a city then you have the benefit of access to amenities, a large number of job opportunities, and opportunities for leisure activities too. Suburbs also have the benefit of being quite well connected. There are a lot of benefits to living in those areas, and the good news is that you can still benefit from exposure to terpenes, by bringing the forest to your living room.
Essential Oils to Boost Your Wellbeing
Essential oils and aromatherapy blends could be called ‘the forest in a bottle’. You can use room diffusers or personal diffusers to enjoy blends that are designed to match your mood and circumstances. Essential oils have been around for a long time, and historically they have been used to treat a huge number of ailments. Recent studies into the use of essential oils to improve health and wellness show that these oils can have a positive impact on the immune system have an antibacterial or anti-microbial effect, can treat anxiety and nausea, and have numerous other beneficial effects.8
Aromatherapy is still considered to be a complementary therapy, but the evidence base is growing for it. That being said, essential oils are often used in the management of chronic conditions, as well as to help improve the physical and emotional well-being of cancer patients.9
It would be unreasonable to call essential oils a cure-all, but it is clear that they have a lot of potentials. We cannot bottle the entire forest, but just as the Japanese found that time spent in the forest can boost immune function,10 researchers have found that essential oil blends can modulate our immune response.11
So, next time you go for a massage and enjoy the scent of some essential oils, or you top up your room diffuser, you can do so knowing that you’re doing more than just enjoying something that smells nice. Essential oils aren’t a perfect substitute for going out for a walk with your friends, and if you can enjoy the odd hike along a nearby nature trail, you will be doing yourself good in a lot of other ways, but those little bottles of essential oils are more powerful than they look!
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