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Forest Bathing as preventive medicine and nature connectedness practice.

Updated: Feb 11

Forest Bathing or shinrin-yoku is a preventive medicine technique that comes from Japan and means immersing your senses in the atmosphere of a forest. This nature-connection method was established back in the 1980s and has been proven scientifically to reduce stress (lower cortisol levels in the blood after one session), improve your mood (by increased production of serotonin) and boost your immune system ( by increased production of NK cells in our body). (*) How is this possible?

Vale of Clara Nature Reserve, Co.Wicklow, Ireland
Vale of Clara Nature Reserve, Co.Wicklow, Ireland

Scientists in Japan, led by prof. Li Quing, Associate Professor at the Department of Hygiene and Public Health of Nippon Medical School, also asked that question after studying groups of people enjoying a slow walk in nature compared to a control group that took a walk in a city. The participants took tests and the results indicated that forest bathing improved their mood and gave them a sense of ease. To get more insights, the scientist analyzed blood samples from the volunteers before and after the meditative and silent walk. Results showed many health benefits, including lower cortisol levels after forest bathing. Further analysis and research indicated that the benefits come from the terpenes inhalation of terpenes, compounds produced by trees in defence against plant pathogens. Interestingly, when inhaled with clean air, the same compounds can become very powerful in preventing many health issues. (*)

Native woodland in Ireland
Native woodland in Ireland

In the forest space, we can expose ourselves to many essential oils. Coniferous forests are primarily known for their high levels of terpenes. The balsamic, fresh scent of pine is excellent for grounding and relaxing, and the resinous, woody aroma of spruce has a calming and stimulating effect on the mind. If we want to stimulate ourselves while relieving nervous tension, it is worth taking a walk in the place where junipers grow. Forest baths in such areas are especially beneficial.

Essential oils belong to the group of terpenes, and they are biological metabolites of plants. They have biocidal and anti-inflammatory properties.

The basic and commonly known terpenes are:

Alpha-pinene - the most common terpene in nature with a fresh pine scent; known for its anti-inflammatory benefits. (1)

Beta-pinene - a more herbal scent reminiscent of basil or dill; recognized for its antifungal and antimicrobial properties. (1)

Camphene - with turpentine, resinous aroma; known for anti-inflammatory properties and relieving neuropathic pain (2).

It has been shown that inhaling essential oils helps with anxiety and depression.(3) Research also indicates that terpenes increase the amount and activity of Natural Killer cells (NK) (cells in our body responsible for controlling several types of tumours and microbial infections by limiting their spread). Additionally, terpenes significantly lower cortisol levels, reduce blood pressure and regulate sleep.(*)

Is Forest Bathing a walk?

One might feel that forest bathing is a walk in the woods and could be accomplished by simply hiking through a forested area. It might be possible, of course, if one knows how to slow down (and switch off the mobile phone!) and focus on breathing or details in the forest.

A mindful practice of forest bathing
A mindful practice of forest bathing

However, a few aspects need to be fulfilled for a walk to become a forest bathing experience.

  1. Switch off your mobile phone and become silent! Not often do we have the opportunity to be in space without artificial noises.

  2. Slow your walk. The experience aims to lower your blood pressure, so mindful walking is beneficial.

  3. Open all your senses to the beauty of nature, look around you, smell the aromas of the forest, and listen to birds.

  4. Be still. During the experience, find a spot where you feel comfortable and peaceful. Slow down and simply be.

  5. Breathe deeply to inhale the terpenes produced by trees and lower calm your nervous system.

  6. Repeat! Make it a daily (or at least weekly) routine, and you will feel the benefits promptly.(**)

A fully trained forest bathing guide will help you open your senses to the beauty of nature and facilitate nature connectedness. A guide also offers mindfulness invitations and activities that involve sharing your experience in a circle, allowing connecting with other participants during the forest bathing experience.

(1) Salehi B, Upadhyay S, Erdogan Orhan I, et al. Therapeutic Potential of α- and β-Pinene: A Miracle Gift of Nature. Biomolecules. 2019;9(11):738. Published 2019 Nov 14. doi:10.3390/biom9110738

(2) Gadotti VM, Huang S, Zamponi GW. The terpenes camphene and alpha-bisabolol inhibit inflammatory and neuropathic pain via Cav3.2 T-type calcium channels. Mol Brain. 2021;14(1):166. Published 2021 Nov 14. doi:10.1186/s13041-021-00876-6

(3) Sánchez-Vidaña DI, Ngai SP, He W, Chow JK, Lau BW, Tsang HW. The Effectiveness of Aromatherapy for Depressive Symptoms: A Systematic Review. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2017;2017:5869315. doi:10.1155/2017/5869315

(*) Dr Qing Li "Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing." Published March 2018

(**) M.Amos Clifford "Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the healing powers of nature." Red Wheel/Weiser Published August 2021

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