The Magical Healing Powers of the Forest was written by Diana MacDonald, a student at Creighton University.
Would you like to feel less stressed and more connected to the world? Would you like more energy, boost your immune system, and feel better? Through the practice of Shinrin-yoku (Forest Bathing), the power of nature can help you do all that and more. Whether you are surrounded by trees, sitting in a garden, or looking out a window at the beauty of nature, you can tap into the bathing powers of nature to heal the body and the mind. Magical healing can happen when we connect with nature.
Perhaps you have never heard of Forest Bathing. The term is from the Japanese words shinrin, meaning forest, and yoku, which means bath. To practice Shinrin-Yoku means to take in the forest through all five of our senses.1-5 In the l980’s, people in Japan, started to spend intentional, mindful time in the forest, and the word Shinrin-Yoku was coined to capture this practice. There was no science at this time to back up the health benefits people said they were experiencing, regardless, the practice of Shinrin-Yoku grew in Japan and began to filter out around the world.
What was driving this desire to be in nature? Some researchers say it is not surprising when you think how we have evolved over the past millions of years as humans. As a species, we have only lived in a “modern” world for less than .01% our existence. That means 99% of the time, nature was our home. This biological, or innate need for humans to be connected with nature is known as biophilia, a Greek word meaning “love of life and the living world”.
The Science and Benefits
As more people began practicing Shinrin-Yoku, it drew attention from all over the world. Researchers wanted to know more about the “how” behind the positive effects that forest bathing had on people. In 2004 the first scientific research study was done in Japan. The results helped researchers begin to unravel the mystery behind the healing power of the forest.
Trees produce phytoncides (essential oils), which they release into the air to protect themselves against insects and disease. It also turns out we benefit from breathing in these essential oils. These oils significantly boost our immune system, improve our heart health, reduce pain, and lower blood sugar levels. They also increase our feeling of well-being, lowering anxiety levels and helping with depression. One way we measure the health of our immune system is to measure the activity level of our natural killer cells, and how many anti-cancer proteins are in our blood. In a study where people spent three days and two nights in a forest practicing forest bathing, their natural killer cells activity increased by 53.2%, and the anti-cancer proteins were up 48%. The effects of this boost on the immune system were found to last up to 30 days.
The soil from the forest bed also boosts our immune system, improves our energy and helps with anxiety and depression. There is a bacterium called Mycobacterium vaccae that is in the soil and released into the air when we walk on it. The connection between a healthy immune system and healthy emotions was an accidental discovery. Researchers knew of the immune boosting properties of the bacterium, and wondered if it could be used to help stop the growth of certain cancers in patients. While their study found no proof of the bacterium immune boosting properties stopping the cancer growth they were researching, they did find by boosting their immune systems patient’s moods, energy levels and ability to think clearly were also improved.
Additionally, there is something in the air that we cannot smell, but it is also helping us to feel better, have more energy and feel more positive. It is the negative ions in the air, which are in the highest concentrations in forests and near running water. It is understandable why we feel so good standing next to a waterfall because the negative ions by a waterfall are 100 times greater than they typically are indoors.1
When we consider the number of different elements in nature that help us calm our mind and provide a space for clarity in thinking, it is not surprising to read that research conducted at two Universities in the United States concluded that people who spend several days in nature “…can boost their problem-solving ability and creativity by 50%.” Good to know for the next time you need to solve a complex problem or have writer’s block for a paper!
Even the color of the forest triggers a response from our body. We are genetically drawn to the color green because, in our primal existence, we knew green was associated with water, and where there was water, there was food. So, when we walk in a green forest, this innate sense of food security, triggered by the green color of the forest, makes us feel calm.1 When we are relaxed, our stress levels decrease, supporting a healthy heart and blood pressure.3
This combination of responses to nature from the instincts we are born with, our emotions and our physical body, has led to the scientific community agreeing that Shinrin-Yoku has a real and powerful positive effect on how we feel emotionally, our ability to think clearly, and our physical health.
How to Practice Shinrin-Yoku
The wonderful thing about this practice is you can make it your own, finding the activities and places that help you to become the most relaxed and connected with nature. The key is finding ways to be fully present, allowing all of your senses to come alive so they can reach out and pullin nature’s richness and healing powers. The five senses we want to engage are sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste; let the power of nature come in through your mouth, eyes, ear, nose, hands, and feet.
Take long, deep breaths and taste the air of the forest. Do not taste plants or other organisms in the woods because it is difficult to distinguish which ones make us sick rather than well.
Appreciate all the different colors and patterns in nature. This can help us feel an incredible connection to something much greater than ourselves, changing negative feelings to positive ones, and filling us with a sense of joy.
Listen to rustling leaves, running water, and birds chirping. Are there other little animals scattering in the tree branches above you? Can you hear the wind? Studies show the sounds from nature we find most stress-relieving are water, wind, and birds chatter, and song.
Take in all the aromas in the forest, the flowers, the forest bed, and the essential oils from the trees. Smells have a powerful effect on our emotions and can connect us to pleasant memories.1
Touch the bark of a tree, or let the water of a stream running through your fingers. Take off your shoes and let your bare feet feel a solid connection with the earth, giving your body access to the healing electrons in the earth.
The ideal length of time to practice Shirin-Yoku is 2 hours. However, we can start to feel the benefits after only 20 minutes.1 While the forest is the perfect place to practice; the benefits can be felt anywhere in nature. This can be a city park, your garden, plants in your home, and even just viewing nature from a window can positively affect your health. In the 1980’s an American professor, Roger Ulrich discovered patients recovering from surgery who had a window view of nature recovered one to two weeks sooner than those who did not. He also found patients who had a view of trees used less pain medication and had lower levels of depression.
Other Activities to Do in the Forest
You can do so many things in the forest to help you reconnect with nature and receive all the health benefits. Exercising in the forest is a good example of the benefits of combining an activity with being in the forest. Being in the forest while we exercise enhances the immune-boosting effects of exercise. This can be especially beneficial in the fall and winter time when we tend to spend more time indoors, and it is easier to be exposed to viruses.
Here are some credible websites to learn more about Shinrin-Yoku.
Healing in the forest: a guide to forest bathing (ontarioparks.com)
Forest bathing: what it is and where to do it (nationalgeographic.com)
If you prefer to read, here is a list of the top 10 books recommended by Certified Forest Guides.
Top 10 Forest Bathing Books Recommended by Certified Guides (natureconnectionguide.com)
If Art is your passion, Pinterest offers additional ideas for nature crafts. These are some of my favorites.
I hope you have enjoyed reading about the healing powers of the forest so you and your family and friends can benefit by spending more time in the forest and growing the support and love our forests need from us. Nature can reduce our stress, relieve anxiety, and help us to feel more positive about the world. When we spend time in nature, our body heals, our heart health improves, and our immune system is boosted. Remember to keep nature close even when we cannot be in a forest. Spend time by the tree in your garden. Bring plants into your home. Gaze out the window at nature. Surround yourself with pictures of the wonder of nature in our world. The mind, the body, our emotions, and our genes are all calling us to connect with nature.
Creighton University Student