The Japanese have a concept called “Shinrin-yoku”, which has been translated as “forest bathing”. The idea refers to staying relatively long periods, several hours to several days, in the forest. A number of studies have found that forest bathing improves health.
We’re accustomed to the idea that being in natural settings soothes the soul, that nature appeals to us in certain ways that nothing else can quite reach. We’re now able to add to our knowledge of this phenomenon by measuring physiological variables of people in nature and see how they vary from being in the city.
Japanese researchers have done a number of studies on forest bathing.
Most of the variables that we associate with stress decline. For instance, cortisol, a stress hormone, when measured in saliva, declines.
Pulse rate and blood pressure are significantly lower when forest bathing. All of this occurs whether just viewing the forest, or with walking also. You can read a review of these studies here.
Another researcher has studied the effects of forest bathing on immune function. See charts below.
Natural killer cell activity and number increased with three days and two nights in the forests of Japan, as did the amount of anti-tumor proteins. See the study here.
Natural killer cell activity is inversely related to cortisol, so this result agrees with the first study. Stress can lower immune activity by this means.
The question is, why should natural landscapes have this affect on us?
Man evolved over millions of years in natural landscapes, and cities are, in evolutionary terms, very unnatural. The lowered stress in a natural environment is likely the way we’re meant to be, and the stress of living in unnatural environments is, well, unnatural.
Even though there would have been plenty of stresses in a natural environment, such as the pressure to obtain food, and fighting or fleeing enemies or wild animals, these stresses may have been short-lived.
By contrast, the stress of city life may be a constant, low-level grind that’s bad for health.
So, get out into nature and relieve some stress and get healthier.
Going into the forest barefoot can add to the health benefits.
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