Forest Bathing

Botanical oils are all around us. Some float in the air we breathe. Some get on our skin through touch. Some have to be extracted from the plant parts through distillation. Not all plants produce enough essential oils to make it cost effective to try to distill the oils. Essential oils contain compounds that can uplift us emotionally, alleviate pain, heal flesh wounds, or even have adverse effects like making us sick, some can even cause death. Essential oils are helpful when used properly and safely. Nature has provided everything we need to exist and thrive.

I first read about forest bathing in an article posted by Mark Sisson in 2010 (1). The premise of the article was to promote being out in nature and how “natural” it is for our physiological and psychological well-being. This concept of being in nature, or a green space, as a natural thing for humans has always made sense to me. I’ve used nature for my own mental wellness for most of my life without even knowing it. Any stress that occurred in my life resulted in me turning to the outdoors to go for a walk or angrily throwing rocks in a pond or using a stick to beat the ground, all the while, yelling why? Why? WHY?  Nature may not be able to answer why something less enjoyable is happening in your life but it does change your way of thinking about it after spending time outdoors in a green space. I prefer walking among the trees over a garden full of flowers. Being in the forest is very calming and soothing to me. The forest has always been a good place to contemplate things happening in my life.

There have been scientific studies on the effects from being in green spaces. Exposure to green space results in protective factors against depression, anxiety and increased immune strength. Salivary cortisol, pulse rate, blood pressure and sympathetic nerve activity decreased (2) after spending time in green space. Spending 3 days in the forest, with daily walks, resulted in a 50% rise in “natural killer” (NK) cell (3) activity and an increase in the number of NK cells. NK cells are lymphocytes known to fight off infection and attack cancer growths. After the 3 day trip into the forest, blood tests showed the increased NK cell activity lasted as long as 30 days (4). The increase in NK activity can be attributed partly to inhaling air containing phytoncide, or essential wood oils given off by the plants (4)(5). The main types of phytoncides are nonexcretory phytoncides, which are found in the protoplasma of cells, and volatile fractions of phytoncides, which are released into the atmosphere, soil, or water (by aquatic plants). Volatile phytoncides are capable of producing an effect at a distance, for example, those from leaves of oak, eucalyptus, pine, and many other trees (14). Delivery of essential oil is most effective through inhalation, which allows you to absorb up to 70% of the oil.

Japan appears to be ahead of the game in using this type of treatment to assist people in their healing process. Japanese Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) or forest therapy is increasing worldwide. Shinrin-yoku can be defined as making contact with and taking in the atmosphere of the forest. Due to the impressive results of these types of studies, government entities in Japan are partnering with the medical industry to hold free health checkups in park areas. Japan is even designating areas as “official” forest therapy sites. The titles are given to forests that have been found by researchers through scientific evidence to have relaxing effects (4). Levels of the stress hormone cortisol decreased in test subjects after a week in the forest (6). Stress can play a role in headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, and arthritis. Forest bathing mitigates to lower stress, which can alleviate these symptoms.

Dr. Qing Li, president of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine, has compiled research that shows forest therapy not only boosts immunity, lowers blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones but also increases energy, reduces anxiety, depression and anger (9). This supports why wilderness therapy programs which take troubled youth into the outdoors for weeks at a time, like Anasazi Foundation, Open Sky Wilderness and Journey Wilderness (10, 11, 12) are so successful. The combination of being in nature and breathing botanical oils brings us back to our roots of being human. There is no better place in nature to heal, grow and learn.

In the United States, there are a few organizations that provide forest therapy guide certification (7,8). These organizations have one long-term goal in mind: to make forest therapy part of the United States healthcare system. Building an infrastructure which includes training centers all over the country will provide enough certified guides to propose a pilot project to large healthcare providers. A successful pilot and a national certification system in place will make it difficult for the medical community to ignore forest therapy (9).

Even though this type of treatment is popping up in the Unites States, it appears to not be as fully accepted and integrated like it is in Japan. I feel that this is because forest therapy is something you can do on your own and doesn’t make some corporation a profit. Our country’s health care system appears to be getting more profit based and far removed from what humans used for treatment before corporate greed took over our world. Though some treatments administered today for common ailments are helpful, many of them have a list of adverse side effects that go with them. After listening to several of these advertisements on the television, I often think I, personally, would rather deal with the disease because the adverse side effects appear to be worse than the disease itself.

Forest bathing helps relive many unwanted symptoms stemming from a person’s past and present traumatizing life experiences. In our aromatherapy studies, we learned how to treat the emotional aspect of a symptom. There is evidence that even the type of green space can make a difference in its effectiveness – for example, if someone was comforted by their grandmother and she wore rose perfume, then walking in a rose garden may serve this person better than walking in a forest. They would associate the rose aroma with their grandmother. Likewise, if a person had suffered a traumatic experience in a forest, I doubt walking in a forest would be beneficial to them. Ideally the plant oils would help with lowering their stress but emotionally, forest smells may trigger panic and bring back the past memories of trauma. Our mind and bodies create associations with smells and experiences.

Author Thom Hartmann (13) writes about using bilateral therapy as a treatment for psychological trauma. He believes that when a tribesman died during the hunt, the remaining tribesmen relieved themselves of the burden of their death while walking back to the village from the hunt. He believed that the walking itself stimulated the whole-brain psychological healing process (13). But what if it was more than the walking and swinging of the arms that helped tribesmen process death? What if the plant oils contributed to the emotional healing?

An article published in Washington Trails Magazine talks about the physiological effects of a body after hiking in the outdoors. Exercising in a natural environment (compared to indoor environments, such as gyms) has a positive effect on heart recovery, blood pressure and overall perceived exertion (15). While the article continues its positive affirmation of how healthy it is to be outdoors, the article never mentions why. Studies have found that children improved their memory and attention span after a nature walk compared to an urban walk (15). Why does all this fantastic stuff happen when we spend time in outdoor spaces? These articles never mention that there is a possibility, and more likely a probability, that plant essential oils play a high role in these positive physiological responses. I believe plant oils are causation to improved physiological responses, not just a correlation to body movement.

This planet that we reside on is full of wonders and provides us everything we need to survive and thrive. We know this because many scientists’ inventions are based upon something that is found to occur naturally in nature. Many of today’s pharmaceuticals are synthetic versions of an herbal or botanical product. Unfortunately, sometimes these synthetic versions are molecularly smaller than the naturally occurring product, which allows them to reach places in the body that nature never meant for it to go. I feel that this is one reason there are so many side-effects to man-made medications. Being smaller to allow deeper penetration does not necessarily mean better healing. Naturally occurring pharmacies reside right outside our door and in our local parks and forests. Society needs to relearn all that is available at our fingertips. I hope to see the day when doctors prescribe a walk in the park or a trip to a local certified aromatherapist as the foundation for their treatment plan to patients.

  1. Sisson, Mark, Mark’s Daily Apple (2010), Forest Bathing.
  2. Li Q, Morimoto K, Nakadai H, Katsumata M, Shimizu T, Hirata Y, Hirata K, Susuki H, Miyazaki Y, Kagawa T, Koyama Y, Ohira T, Takayama N, Krensky AM, Kawada T, US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health (2007), Forest Bathing Enhances Human Natural Killer Activity and Expression of Anti-Cancer Proteins.
  3. Anderson, Stephen K, The Journal of Nutrition (2005), Biology of Natural Killer Cells: What is the Relationship Between Natural Killer Cells and Cancer? Will an Increased Number and/or Function of Natural Killer Cells Result in Lower Cancer Incidence?
  4. Nakamura, Akemi, the Japan Times (2008), ‘Forest Therapy’ Taking Root. Researchers Find That a Simple Stroll Among Trees has Real Benefits.
  5. Li Q, Nakadai A, Matsushima H, Miyazaki Y, Krensky AM, Kwada T, Morimoto K (2006), US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, Phytoncides (Wood Essential Oils) Induce Human Natural Killer Cell Activity.
  13. Thom Hartmann, Walking Your Blues Away: How to Heal the Mind and Create Emotional
    (Vermont: Park Street Press, 2006)
  15. Jones, H. (2016, May).  Hiking: The New Alternative Medicine, Washington Trails, 14-17.

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