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Why Forest Bathing? Derive Health and Well-being Benefits During the Pandemic

Last updated on August 27, 2020

I was recently asked on a Zoom session with forest educators about how Forest Bathing is different from a walk in the woods.  I have done a lot of hiking in my life; I have climbed all the 4000 footers in N.H. and peaks is surrounding states and on my travels.  Forest Bathing is not “hiking.”

Forest Bathing is a new way to be in the forest. Forest bathing is different from trekking in the woods.  Forest Bathing is about mindfully using the senses to fully experience the forest to derive the maximum health and well-being benefits.

Some guidance about certain strategies can help enhance your experience.  Forest bathing is about more than gaining new perspectives about your surroundings.  Forest bathing is about more than practicing mindfulness.  The experience is about smelling, listening, feeling, noticing and breathing- taking in everything, including the phytoncides -antimicrobial, allelochemic volatile organic compounds derived from the surrounding plants.  Allelochemicals are chemicals produced by living organisms which exert a detrimental physiological effect on individuals of another species when released into the environment. 

Phytoncides are active substances that help prevent the plants which produce them from rotting or being destroyed by bacteria and fungi or being eaten by insects or animals.  Phytoncides work by inhibiting, or preventing the growth of, the attacking organism. They have been used in Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Russian holistic medicine and are now word about the value of these essential oils is spreading and being adopted by the West. 

Phytoncides not only benefit the plants that produce them, but they benefit human health in several ways. Studies in Japan have shown that Forest Bathing reduces our levels of cortisol, slows our heart rate, and lowers our blood pressure.  Measured levels of salivary amylase indicates less impact by environmental stress. Researchers have found participants of forest bathing report less depression. For regular forest bathing, practicing for more than 6 years, those who have type-two diabetes have lower blood glucose, and improved insulin sensitivity. Environmental psychologists in the US have now found youth who have been diagnosed with ADHD have improved concentration. 

Dr. Quing Li’s, Forest Medicine, 2012, documents his 40 years of peer reviewed medical studies about the physiological benefits of forest bathing.  Dr. Li is a physician and immunologist with the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, Japan. Dr. Li’s Forest Bathing, 2018, a translated version for the lay person, describes how phytoncides increase the activity of human’s Natural Killer (NK) cells.  NK cells are a type of white blood cell that attack and kill unwanted, infected cells.  They do so with the help of anti-cancer proteins from phytoncides.  The proteins drill holes in the infected cell membranes of humans causing these tarnished cells to die.  Synthesizing the research, Dr. Li and others have found people with higher NK activity show a lower incidence of disease, (Li, Quin, 2018 & 2012).   

Now with Covid, more citizens are recognizing the safest places are outside, and it is worth recognizing not all aerosols are bad. My goal in offering Forest Bathing walks is to make sure folks know about the full spectrum of what trees do for us.  This is part of the motive in having Plymouth State University designated as a Tree Campus USA, one of the initiatives of the “Valuing Campus Trees and Community Forests.” 

Now as I prepare to offer my sixth Forest Bathing walk, July 15th, 2020, I will share the above information as well as a new resource, listed below, which is all the more special because “Lost,” by David Wagoner, 1999, was brought to my attention by my friend and colleague Sheryl Shirley, who attended my fifth Forest Bathing walk at D’Acres, NH, July 2020.

 “Lost” by David Wagoner

Stand still.

The trees ahead and bushes behind you are not lost.

Wherever you are is called Here.

And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,

Must ask permission to know it and be known.

The forest breathes. Listen

It answers,

I have made a place around you.

If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.

No two trees are the same to Raven

No two branches are the same to Wren.

If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you.

You are surely lost.

Stand still.

The forest knows where you are.

You must let if find you.

Of course, after reading the poem, I must add, as another adage about lost points out, “not all who wander are lost.”  I just want as many folks as possible to know, not be “lost,” and not miss out on the documented benefits of forest bathing. Forest Bathing provides health and well-being and boosts our immune system, especially important during the coronavirus pandemic.

Resources: 

  • Forest Therapy Association of the Americas, 2013-2014, Health Benefits, http://forest-therapy.net/healthbenefits.html.
  • Li Q, Morimoto K, Kobayashi M, Inagaki H, Katsumata M, Hirata Y, Hirata K, Shimizu T, Li YJ, Wakayama Y, Kawada T, Ohira T, Takayama N, Kagawa T, Miyazaki Y. “A forest bathing trip increases human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins in female subjects.” J Biol Regul Homeost Agents. 2008 Jan–Mar; 22(1):45–55.
  • Li Q, Morimoto K, Kobayashi M, Inagaki H, Katsumata M, Hirata Y, Hirata K, Suzuki H, Li YJ, Wakayama Y, Kawada T, Park BJ, Ohira T, Matsui N, Kagawa T, Miyazaki Y, Krensky AM. “Visiting a forest, but not a city, increases human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins.” Int J Immunopathol Pharmacol. 2008 Jan–Mar; 21(1):117–27.
  • Li, Quin, 2018, Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, Penguin Random House, New York, NY.
  • Li, Quin, editor, 2012, Forest Medicine, Nova Science Publishers.
  • Wagoner, David, Lost, 1971, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=31967, and Travelling Light, Collected and New Poems, 1999, https://thefirstgates.com/2012/09/05/lost-a-poem-by-david-wagoner/.
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