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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Forest Bathing: An All-natural Treatment for Body and Mind

Forest Bathing has been proven to be an effective treatment for reducing anxiety, depression, irritability, insomnia and more.

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”   Lao Tzu

Jami went to see her Primary Care Physician because she was feeling tired and overwhelmed. She felt she had little to look forward to and recently began experiencing panic attacks at work.  Her physician listened sympathetically and then advised Jami that she had an effective treatment that would reduce her symptoms within four weeks.  She wrote a prescription for her to walk three times a week for 30 minutes in the forest.

“Shinrin-yoku” is a Japanese term which means “taking in the forest atmosphere or Forest Bathing.”  The name was first coined in 1982 by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries.  Since then, numerous studies in the US and around the world have explored the health benefits of being in nature, green spaces and specifically forests.

What researchers have found is exciting and promising as Forest Bathing has been proven to be an effective treatment for reducing anxiety, depression, irritability, insomnia, headaches, high blood pressure and even dementia.

How does it work?

Imagine yourself walking on a beautiful wooded trail breathing in the cool, clean air while boosting your heart rate.  As you walk, much more is happening in your body than you know.  The very exposure to the forest is boosting your immune system because as you breathe in the fresh air, you are also breathing in “phytoncides” an airborne chemical that plants give off to protect themselves from insects. Phytoncides have anti-bacterial qualities that also help plants fight disease.  When you breathe in these chemicals your body responds by increasing the number of white blood cells called “Natural Killer” cells or NK and this helps your body fight disease, too.   These NK cells kill tumor and virus infested cells in our bodies.  Japan is currently exploring whether exposure to forests can help prevent certain kinds of cancer.

In addition to boosting our healthy white blood cells, exposure to forests reduces the stress-related hormones cortisol and adrenaline and also decreases blood pressure. What happens when our bodies have reduced levels of cortisol and adrenaline?  A lot of good things – let’s take a closer look.

What are the benefits?

In a study involving 1,252 participants who practiced “green exercise” (activity in the presence of nature) both men and women reported a marked improvement in their mood.  The children in the study showed the most positive changes in mood as children tend to thrive in nature.  Additional studies have shown that simply exercising outside in a natural setting such as a park, a garden, or nature trail improves not just physical health but mental health.  For instance, researchers found that Forest Bathing trips significantly reduced scores for anxiety and depression on tests that measure for these symptoms.

Here are some other interesting findings:

  • Studies have demonstrated that hospital patients recover more quickly when they can see trees from their windows.
  • Contact with nature reduces the incidence of negative feelings such as anger, fear and frustration and induces peace of mind.
  • Building natural settings with trees and gardens in high density urban areas reduces vandalism, violence, crime rates and improves neighborhood satisfaction.
  • Regular walks in nature will reduce irritability, restlessness, insomnia, tension, headaches and fosters digestion.
  • Spending time in nature, enjoying the beautiful landscape, gives the cognitive portion of our brain a break and renews our ability to focus and be fully present in our lives.

Where can I go to bathe?

“I come here to find myself because it’s so easy to get lost in the world” – written by John Burroughs and placed in a gazebo at Five Rivers in Bethlehem overlooking Heron Pond.

How can we introduce Forest Bathing and green exercise into our everyday lives?  We need to make the time to spend in nature, and thankfully, in the Capital Region this is easy to do.  Taking a walk at one of our local environmental centers such as Five Rivers in Bethlehem or on the Indian Ladder Trail at Thatcher Park or seeking out the waterfalls at The Plotter Kill Preserve in Rotterdam are three good places to bask in nature.  Vermont, the Adirondacks and the Shawangunks are so close by they make a great day trip for bathing.

You can find opportunities for green exercises at your local gym .  Look for gyms that have outdoor Yoga classes, outdoor cycling groups and tri-clubs.

Many gyms are taking classes outside during warmer months and members are feeling the increased benefits of yoga among the trees.

The next time you are on your way to walk the mall or work inside a health club, consider taking a different path toward wellness.  Take the path that involves a brush with nature because the benefits for your mind and body will be enormous.

Diane Lykes is a Principal of Synergy Counseling Associates in Albany where she specializes in individual and couples counseling, educational training and clinical consultation.  She can be reached at 466.3100 or [email protected]

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