Written by: Michael F Simpson
“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more”
John Burroughs, Environmentalist 1
In just 200 years the percentage of humans residing in cities has risen from 3% to 54% 2. The urbanization of the planet and sequential technological and scientific achievements have been overwhelmingly beneficial. However, our rapid transition from the natural to built environment has undeniably lead to a range of psychological and physiological health issues 3, 4, 5.
The benefits of being out in nature has been intuitively known for millennia but now academia – in particular, the field of environmental psychology 6 – is leading the surge of research into the effects of our environment on our psychological and physiological health.
The Japanese practice of forest bathing. What’s it all about?
In Japan, the therapeutic benefits of nature have been known for centuries stemming back to the ancient practices of Shinto and Buddhism 7. The phrase Shinrin-yoku was coined by the Japanese government in 1982 translating to English as “forest bathing” promoted by the Forest Agency of Japan as a relaxation and stress management activity 8, 9. The practice typically involves immersing oneself in a forest, with the focus on shifting the individuals’ awareness from thinking to sensing, whilst breathing in antimicrobial essential oils from surrounding trees.
What does the research say?
The psychological and physiological benefits of this practice have now been studied and recorded extensively. Indeed, studies have shown that forest environments lead to reduced blood pressure, pulse and cortisol levels 10, 11, all of which are fundamental for healthy bodily functions 12. Not surprisingly research also shows that forest environments promote positive feelings and reduce negative feelings such as stress and anxiety 8, 10.
Additionally, studies can now quantifiably show that feelings of hostility and depression significantly decrease in forest environments whilst the sense of being alive increases 8. The opposite is observed when exposed to urban settings 11.
Qing Li, a professor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo thought the benefits may actually be greater than what was so far considered. In 2010 he conducted a study on the effects of forest-bathing on the immune system. Incredibly those subjects who spent 3 days and 2 nights in Shinano forest were recorded to have raised concentrations of Natural Killer (NK) cells, known to kill tumor cells. This groundbreaking research from Qing Li and others suggest forest bathing trips may have a preventive effect on the development of psychosocial stress-related diseases 8 and cancers 9,13.
What does this mean for society and the individual?
In short, the research backs up something we all already knew. Exposure to nature is good for you. However, the explosion of research in this field is finally allowing us to quantifiably understand the magnitude of how good it may be.
Whilst forest bathing is by no means a replacement for conventional medicinal practices the beneficial psychological and physiological effects found in recent studies must warrant for further collaboration with architects, doctors, policymakers, educators and politicians in the attempt to better the well-being of individuals across all societies. Yet, it is critical we step with caution due to the nature of how small and young this emerging pool of literature is.
- Louv, R. (2005). Last Child in the Woods. New York: Algoquin Books of Chapel Hill. 44.
- Human Population: Urbanization. (2018). Retrieved from Population Reference Bureau: http://www.prb.org/Publications/Lesson-Plans/HumanPopulation/Urbanization.aspx
- Phillips, D. R. (1993). Urbanization and human health. Parasitology, 106.
- Harpham, T. (2004). Urbanization and incidence of psychosis and depression: Follow-up study of 4.4 million women and men in Sweden. The British Journal of Psychiatry.
- Gong, P., Liang, S., Carlton, E. J., Jiang, Q., Wu, J., Wang, L., & Remais, J. V. (2012). Urbanisation and health in China. The Lancet, 379(9818), 843-852.
- Bechtel, R. B. (2010). Environmental . London: John Wiley & Sons. p. 2-44.
- Asquith, P. J. (1997). Japanese Images of Nature: Cultural Perspectives. London: Taylor & Francis. p. 3,153, 240-270.
- Morita, E., Fukuda, S., Nagano, Nagano, J., Hamajima, N., Yamamoto, H., . . . Shirakawa, T. (2007). Psychological effects of forest environments on healthy adults: Shinrin-yoku (forest-air bathing, walking) as a possible method of stress reduction. Public Health.
- Li, Q. (2010). Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine.
- Lee, J., Park, B. J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Ohira, T., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y. (2011). Effect of forest bathing on physiological and psychological responses in young Japanese male subjects. Public Health.
- Park, B. J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y. (2009). The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environmnetal Health and Preventive Medicine.
- Livestrong – Health. (2018). Retrieved from Livestrong: https://www.livestrong.com/cat/health/
- Li, Q., Morimoto, K., Nakadai, A., Inagaki, H., Katsumata, M., Shimizu, T., . . . Kawada, T. (2007). Forest Bathing Enhances Human Natraul Killer Activity and Anti-Cancer