Healthy trees shower (or bathe), themselves in an antimicrobial, anti-fungal, antibacterial compound called phytoncides. This is how they combat disease. Inhaling and absorbing, these phytoncides, triggers the human body to produce a specialised white blood cell called NK cells. Natural Killer cells are responsible for attacking cancerous and tumorous growths in the body.
New scientific studies are now providing evidence that these essential wood oils can improve our overall immune strength.
The human body evolved to be quite self-sufficient over thousands of years in the forest without any medicine. This ability to utilise phytoncides for immune health was probably one of the ways our ancestors kept themselves healthy.
More benefits to your health from Forest Bathing:
Over the last 10 to 15 years scientists, mainly in Japan and South Korea, have been accumulating data that reveals some amazing health benefits associated with Nature Connection. There is now clear evidence that people who appreciate nature, and make the effort to spend time in it, are happier, healthier and more creative.
Here is a summary of some of the latest scientific studies followed by some anecdotal evidence from some of my friends who have real-life experiences promoting the healing power of Nature.
1. Nature is a powerful antidepressant
Studies have shown that walking in Nature, helps to balance levels of feel-good brain chemicals. Levels of oxygen in the brain are connected to levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that affects mood. Too much serotonin makes us irritable and tense, too little and we feel depressed. According to scientists, breathing fresh air helps the brain regulate serotonin levels promoting greater happiness and wellbeing. Recent research has also identified a link between forest soil and levels of serotonin. There are harmless bacteria in woodland soil that acts as a natural antidepressant too. This bacterium called Mycobacterium Vaccae, can increase the release and metabolism of serotonin in parts of the brain that controls our cognitive functions, our thinking and our mood. Finally, do you remember a parent saying chin up when they caught you feeling down? Or recall a sports coach encouraging players to lift your head up when they felt they were losing the game? Well new scientific evidence is proving there was something in this too. When we are out in a forest and lift our heads and chins up towards the light and cathedral-like canopy of green trees above us, mood-enhancing brain chemicals are released. Another missed opportunity these days when we have our heads down looking at our phones and other digital devices.
2. Nature can prevent heart disease, diabetes and obesity
Walking is one of the healthiest activities around. A couple of hours walking mindfully in Nature can burn over 500 calories. It’s also much easier on our bodies than running, which puts a lot of pressure on the joints. Walking has been proven to reduce blood pressure and build up levels of fitness, helping to prevent cardio-vascular disease, strengthening our core, improving stability and aiding weight loss.
3. Nature helps us recover more quickly and feel less pain
Scientists in Pennsylvania proved that just looking at Nature out of your window can have a beneficial effect on wellbeing. A study, in Pennsylvania, was conducted of patients recovering from a procedure to remove their gall bladder. Some were given a room that looked out onto the wall of a building, while others were assigned a room with a view of Nature. The study showed that patients looking at Nature recovered more swiftly and used less painkillers than those whose view looked out onto the wall.
4. Nature gives the brain downtime to recharge
Our brains use about 20% of all the energy the body produces. This figure can increase by another 10% when we are trying to solve problems. When we sit and rest these days there is a tendency to use our phones, tablets or watch television. Even when we switch off our devices, quite often our minds are consumed by thoughts; often thoughts that worry or annoy us. Our brains need downtime. How often to you find yourself struggling to get to sleep, or find yourself waking up in the early hours? Getting a good night’s sleep seems to be getting more difficult.
Recent studies show that in the UK over 50% of us struggle to get to sleep and fail to get enough sleep. Worryingly 75% of those reporting difficulties are women. However, when we are in the daydream state, allowing our minds to wander, the brain can rest and recharge. Scientists have discovered that the brain settles into a default mode where the day-to- day mind chatter switches off. Have you ever caught yourself having driven a familiar route and arriving at your destination with no memory of driving there? This is quite a common condition experienced by all of us at some point in life. Sometimes, the brain needs to switch into this autopilot mode to recharge and recover from long periods of over use.
Research has found that dysfunction in this default setting of the brain is present in conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Schizophrenia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Ongoing research is also looking at ways switching off mind chatter can help those with mental health disorders such as addiction, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) who can have automatic thought patterns that drive repeated, unpleasant behaviour. While the research continues, I suggest you access this state, wandering in Nature, as a safer and easier alternative than driving home in the rush hour.
5. Nature can lower blood pressure and reduce stress
Stress and stress-related disease costs the UK economy nearly £6.5bn each year, with people taking 10.4 million days off work through stress-related illness. Studies have been carried out in Japan since the 1990s monitoring the effects of a practice I regularly refer to on my Natural Mindfulness walks called Shinrin-yoku, known in the west as Forest Bathing.
Field experiments were carried out in 24 forests across Japan, with 280 participants in total. In each experiment, the scientists would send one half of the participants into the woods, and the other half into a city. The next day, those who spent time in the woods would be sent into a city and vice versa. Scientists found those who spent their day in forests had lower concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, lower pulse rate and lower blood pressure. In other words, participants were decidedly less stressed when they were in Nature as opposed to an urban environment. Further studies have indicated that when participants were mindful of the health benefits of what they were doing, results would increase by up to 25%.
6. Nature can boost the immune system
It’s not only our minds that benefit from time in the woods, but also our bodies. There is widespread evidence that chemicals emitted by plants, known as phytoncides, essential wood oils, can help strengthen the immune systems of humans who are exposed to them. Plants emit phytoncides to protect themselves from insects and rotting. A study from the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo found when humans breathe in these chemicals it increases the number of natural kill cells, a type of white blood cell, in our bodies. Natural kill cells are vital to our immune systems as they hunt and kill tumours or infected cells. Again, by adding the element of mindful awareness of the benefits, resulted in further increases.
7. Nature stimulates our intuition and creativity
Our minds become sharper and more inventive after spending time in Nature. One of the most detrimental aspects of modern society is that we spend far too much time on our phones and digital devices. Whenever we’re bored, we unconsciously reach for them. There’s a great deal of evidence that boredom helps increase creativity, in the sense that boredom stimulates the creative mind to wander in search of new insights.
A study from researchers at the University of Kansas and University of Utah revealed that spending time in the great outdoors, and away from all the technological distractions, makes us more intuitive and creative. The researchers sent 56 participants on hiking excursions ranging from four to six days in the wildernesses. During this time, the participants were not allowed to use any electronic devices. Ultimately, the researchers found the participants showed a 50% increase in creativity, overall attention and problem-solving abilities after several days in the wilderness, away from technology. Whether this was a direct consequence of exposure to Nature or less technology requires further research for more conclusive evidence. However, this still suggests natural environments stimulate the brain in ways civilisation cannot, improving our cognitive abilities and igniting our imaginations. It comes as no surprise to me how many of history’s greatest pieces of art, literature and music were produced by those who truly appreciated Nature and spent much of their time in it.
8. Nature improves memory
Several studies show that being out in Nature and moving naturally has memory-promoting effects that other walks do not. In a study by the University of Michigan, students were given a brief memory test, then divided into two groups. One group took a walk around an arboretum, and the other took a walk down a city street. When the participants returned and did the test again, those who had walked among trees showed an improvement of almost 20% better than the first time. The group who had taken in city sights instead, did not consistently improve.
9. Nature can make us less afraid and anxious
When we are afraid we often say, ‘I feel nervous’. We are referring to our sympathetic nervous system which controls the fight-or-flight response all animals have to a perceived danger. There is another part of our autonomic nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system which is a much more chilled ‘default’ state of being, sometimes referred to as the digest and rest response. I referred to this in my story at the beginning of this book when I was writing about flow states, bliss and being in the zone.
An American study discovered that loud noises trigger our sympathetic nervous system flooding our body with a stress hormone called cortisol. Recent studies discovered that this can happen even when participants are sleeping, creating cortisol spikes. The good news is that the study also revealed that sounds found in Nature like birdsong and the running water, can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. This can even have a relaxing and calming effect on us when the sounds are recorded. You’ll notice these sounds are regularly used in guided meditation, mindfulness practice and other wellbeing activities such as yoga. While I am sitting writing this during Springtime here in the UK, with a publishing deadline, I am surrounded by birdsong coming from the woods that surround my home and feeling remarkably calm and at one with everything.
To discover more about ‘Forest Bathing’ and the healing power of nature, join me on a Natural Mindfulness walk, or buy a copy of my new book Natural Mindfulness – a practical guide to the healing power of nature connection. www.ianbanyard.com