The simplest way to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and ward off cancer—naturally

Spring is quickly approaching and you may be eager to make a trek to a nearby forest—especially if you’ve been hearing about a “new” trend called “forest bathing.”

But like many natural healing concepts, forest bathing is simply an old idea that’s been rediscovered in our modern, over-urbanized era. During the past two years, it’s been featured in Time and People magazines, and in the New York Times and USA Today.

Perhaps the idea of “bathing” in the forest sounds a little risqué or “wild and crazy”—and that may be partially true. But dozens of studies show that forest bathing actually has remarkable health benefits.

In fact, it’s a simple, effective way to lower your stress and blood pressure…and it may even help prevent cancer. Let’s dive right in…

What is forest bathing?

The concept behind forest bathing can be traced back to the mid-1800s, during Japan’s Meiji Restoration period. But the Japanese “forest tradition,” or nature worship, goes all the way back to the debut of Shintoism in 6th century Japan.

The Japanese call forest bathing shinrin-yoku, or “bathing yourself in the atmosphere of the forest.”

In Europe and the United States, 19th century naturopathic physicians talked about taking all kinds of “baths” in nature. Bathing in hot, cold, mineral, or bubbling waters was a foundation of many famous natural health spas in the old and new worlds. And so was forest bathing.

In essence, forest bathing consists of ambling through the forest, letting your body and your senses be your guide. The overall goal is to expose your body to the sun, air, and wind, savoring the sounds, smells, and sights of your surroundings. Some even enjoy naked forest bathing, assuming you’re on private property.

Forest bathing is different from taking a “walk in the woods” (with apologies to author Bill Bryson). There’s no particular destination in mind, at least in terms of topography, geography, or physical space. In fact, you may walk or hike less than a mile per “bathing” session.

A different twist on meditation

While focusing on the sensations of the forest naturally clears your mind and allows you to be present in the moment, forest bathing is not just another form of meditation. Instead, it’s about connecting with Nature. Either alone, or with a group.

You might choose to close your eyes, turn your palms outward, and “feel” the forest all around you. Sometimes the forest air is silent, and you can consider the metaphysical concept of the “sounds of silence.” In a gentle snowfall, the silence is more profound, as the snowflakes absorb any sound waves that may be floating in the air.

You may also simply enjoy feeling the cool, crisp air, and then stepping back into the warmth of the sun filtering through the trees. Or you might lie on your back, watching the sun and clouds move above the tree canopy.

The healthful aspects of forest bathing

If all of this sounds like it will lower your stress and boost your mood, you’re absolutely right. But that’s not all forest bathing can do for your health. In fact, Japanese and Chinese researchers have conducted a surprising amount of recent studies on forest bathing.

One 2017 review of 64 studies found that forest bathing can reduce stress and “technostress”—or burnout.1 And a 2019 review and meta-analysis of 30 studies found that forest bathing can substantially reduce the stress biomarker cortisol on a short-term basis.2

Another 2017 review of 20 studies found that forest bathing significantly lowers blood pressure.And a 2019 literature review reported that forest bathers had reduced anxiety, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion—and increased vigor.

In fact, the review authors were so impressed by all of the health benefits of forest bathing that they suggested establishing “a new medical science called Forest Medicine.”4

Finally, several studies have found that forest bathing can increase the number of cancer-fighting white blood cells (known as “natural killer” or NK cells, discovered by my friend and colleague Dr. Jerry Thornthwaite).

In one study, Japanese adults spent three days and two nights in a forest. Their blood and urine samples were taken on the second and third day of the trip, and then on days seven and 30.

The participants’ NK cells were elevated at each blood measurement, leading the researchers to conclude that forest bathing just once a month can enable people to maintain a consistent level of higher NK activity—which helps them naturally fight cancer.

This NK increase is likely due to phytoncides, which are organic, antimicrobial fluids that boost the human immune system. Plants emit phytoncides, and forest bathing can expose you to them.

So if your health journey ends up taking you right through the forest…embrace it. After all, you may end up bolstering your health—and truly finding yourself.

How to take advantage of forest bathing

Choose your forest. Forest bathing should be done in an area without much traffic from other hikers. Find a small, local forest or a remote part of a big national park like the Everglades, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, or one of my favorites—Adirondack Park in upstate New York.

Be prepared. Depending on the season, dress in layers (opt for “wicking” fabrics to carry away moisture). Wear comfortable walking shoes and a hat or visor to shade your face from harmful UV rays. But leave the rest of your skin as exposed as possible to help naturally generate vitamin D from the sun that gently filters through the trees.

Carry plenty of drinking water and insect spray made from natural plant oils, like citrus or eucalyptus. I also encourage you to take along some hot water in a thermos.

Stop, look, and listen. As you walk or rest, watch what’s in motion—a breeze in the tree leaves, the swishing of cattails or tall grasses in a marsh, the tinkling of a creek, small forest animals running on the ground and through the trees, birds hopping around…

Identify the sounds of forest dwellers: the staccato of a pileated, red-headed woodpecker, the high-frequency purring of a squirrel. But also note the extended intervals of silence and stillness.

Smell the forest. Note the aroma of the damp soil. Take in the fresh scent of evergreens. Look for berries on bushes and note the scents. Find moss on a tree (a sign of clean air in the forest) and lean in for an earthy whiff.

Feel the forest. Grab a handful of fresh and fallen leaves, pine needles, and cones. Touch the barks of trees and note the differences among common species like oak, aspen, maple, or pine.

If you find some white-brown curls of birch bark on the ground, pick it up—for something that looks so fine and delicate, it’s quite sturdy.

Taste the forest. Gather some balsam, pine, wintergreen, or wood sorrel needles or leaves directly from the tree or plant. Pour out a cup of your hot water in a thermos, and let the ingredients gently infuse.

Then, strain out the plant material and take a sip. You’ll find that your tea is naturally sweet, without any need for sugar or honey. And you’ll be drinking in, as well as breathing in, all of the health benefits of the natural plant oils.

Sources:

1“Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing) and Nature Therapy: A State-of-the-Art Review.” Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017 Jul 28;14(8).

2“Effects of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) on levels of cortisol as a stress biomarker: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” Int J Biometeorol. 2019 Aug;63(8):1117-1134.

3“Blood pressure-lowering effect of Shinrin-yoku (Forest bathing): a systematic review and meta-analysis.” BMC Complement Altern Med. 2017 Aug 16;17(1):409.

4“Effect of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) on human health: A review of the literature.” Sante Publique. 2019 May 13;S1(HS):135-143.

5“Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function.” Environ Health Prev Med. 2010 Jan;15(1):9-17.0


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