Microdose #002: Make Forest Bathing a Regular Practice
This Japanese tradition reduces stress and improves immunity.
BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front):
Modern life is stressful. Elevated levels of cortisol, the human stress hormone, depress our immune systems and lead to fatigue, weight gain, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. This is compounded by the fact that we spend more time indoors than ever before in history. The traditional Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku, or forest bathing, reduces cortisol, improves immunity, and may help prevent cancer.
See The Plan below for easy ways to incorporate elements of this practice into your daily life, regardless of where you live.
While some level of stress is unavoidable in life, excess stress can have a serious impact on our health. It’s been estimated that some 75-90% of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.
The stress hormone cortisol depresses NK -- or natural killer -- cells, which are an essential part of our immune system. These cells aren’t just helpful in fighting off viruses and common illnesses, but are an essential tool in our body's defence against cancer.
A simple, common-sense practice that can significantly decrease cortisol and increase NK cell activity in a lasting way merits inclusion into our daily routines.
Forest bathing seems to accomplish a trifecta of positive actions on one’s body and state of mind: it incorporates exercise (walking through the woods), the calming effects of being in nature, and the inhalation of phytoncides -- the aromatic compounds produced by trees.
- “The increased NK activity lasted for more than 30 days after the trip, suggesting that a forest bathing trip once a month would enable individuals to maintain a higher level of NK activity. In contrast, a visit to the city as a tourist did not increase NK activity…”
- “...findings suggest that visiting forest parks may have a preventive effect on cancer generation and progression.”
- Similar positive results are observed when people inhale phytoncides (wood aromas) outside a forest environment
Determine what greenspace is accessible to you.
You’re probably closer to a park, forest, or wooded area than you might think. In the US, the average distance to the nearest forest is about 2.6 miles. Even if you live in a dense city, greenspace may be more accessible than you realize.
Look for places that:
- Allow you to feel surrounded by trees and greenery
- Have areas to sit, or paths to walk around
- Smell like trees (this is particularly important)
Check out Park Finder, a joint project between the National Parks Service and L.L. Bean, to find nearby spots: https://findyourpark.com/park-finder
Incorporate nature into your daily routines
While you may not be able to fully immerse yourself in the forest every day, communing with nature regularly can have a marked impact on your sense of wellbeing.
Here are some potential options:
- Alter your walking commute route to cut through some greenspace
- Take your daily coffee on a park bench
- Become a member of a local botanical garden or conservatory
- Fill your house with low maintenance plants (we like members of the ficus family)
- Take up gardening as a hobby
Immerse yourself monthly
Thankfully, a deep immersion in the forest has a long lasting impact on your NK cell activity, with results persisting for 30 days in clinical studies. Plan monthly hiking trips that take you into a heavily wooded area. We highly recommend visiting a national park, if feasible.
Depending on your ability and desire, you can aim for an exhilarating trek over rough terrain, or a leisurely stroll on a paved path. In either case, take some time to breathe deep, observe and appreciate your surroundings (did you know that looking at the fractal patterns that occur in nature has a positive impact on stress levels), and think about your unique place in this beautiful world.
Doing this monthly will keep your cancer-killing NK cells at an elevated level all year round.
Bring the benefits of the forest into your home
When Japanese researchers wanted to isolate the source of forest bathing’s impact on health, they experimented with placing test subjects in hotel rooms in Tokyo, and exposing them to the forest aromas (containing the phytoncides mentioned earlier) via an essential oil diffuser… and remarkably, they saw similar positive results.
So, why not just skip the forest altogether and get yourself a diffuser? While you’ll likely see good results, we believe that spending time in nature lends an array of compounding and complementary benefits to both our physical and mental health, and that making this time for yourself can have intangible rewards outside of what is observed in clinical trials. For this reason, while we suggest sourcing an all natural tree-derived essential oil to use in your home (hinoki is the type of tree most studied for this purpose, due to its prevalence in the forests of Japan), we still highly recommend sniffing these powerful aromas straight from the source as often as you can.
Alex - Before moving to the Pacific Northwest, the great outdoors and I had only a passing acquaintance. I hadn't visited any national parks and having grown up in a small beach town in New England, usually most of the time I spent in nature was at the shore. During the pandemic my husband and I relocated to a small coastal town from Seattle, Washington, and because of the restrictions around indoor activities, we took up hiking. This ended up being the best decision we made during the pandemic (the second best was buying a Le Creuset grill pan). The effects that hiking (and being in the woods in general) has had on our physical and emotional health goes almost beyond words. We find that when we haven’t been outdoors in a while, we can feel our emotional health slipping, something that we were never able to gauge before. Needless to say, this is a habit that we are glad to continue for life.
Frank - While not exactly forest bathing, I’ve made it a daily habit to sit by the water (in my case, the Strait of Juan de Fuca in Port Townsend, WA) while I drink my morning coffee. The ritual calms me, and helps to put my problems in perspective, as I look at the beautiful and unrelenting waves crashing against the pier.