Forest Bathing Makes You Smarter (Happier, too)

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If you have no stress in your life, you can skip this post. (You also may be dead. Take a moment and check your pulse.)

Still with us? Good.

Now you can learn about an idea which costs nothing and which recent research suggests will help you cope with the chronic stress that has your body on high alert even when you want to chill out.

Think about it. Your body responds at unconscious levels to the environment around you. Stimulation from traffic, artificial light and technology bombards most people. Meanwhile, chronic disease and mood disorders like anxiety and depression are reaching new highs. (1,2) So researchers and clinicians have turned to nature for answers.  

The forest provides measurable health benefits

Forest bathing or shinrin-yoku means immersing yourself in nature, preferably in the form of a relaxed walk under a live canopy of trees. (There’s no need to drag your bathtub into the woods.) The concept was developed in the 1980s in response to the rapid movement of Japanese citizens from the country to more urban areas. Translated as “taking in the forest,” the therapy has become a mainstay in Japanese medicine.

Forest bathing rapidly lowers stress hormone levels, blood pressure, pulse rate and heart rate variability compared with exposure to a city environment. (3)

Not bad for a non-strenuous hike. Forest bathing delivers 8 truly Bulletproof benefits:

  •      Reduced stress
  •      Immune boosting function
  •      Accelerated recovery from injury or illness
  •      Reduced blood pressure
  •      Improved mood
  •      Improved sleep
  •      Increased focus
  •      Increased energy

Other reported benefits mimic those of mindfulness and meditation –  an overall increase in happiness and clarity, for example.

How does forest bathing work?

When something triggers your stress response –  a difficult work presentation, for example, or being stuck in gridlock – your body releases a cascade of hormones. Overexposure to these hormones increases the risk of anxiety, depression, heart disease, weight gain and cognitive decline. Not good. But our strolls in nature can play a role in remedying that hormonal wave. Let’s look at four main ways forest bathing helps:

#1 Lowers  stress hormones

Walking in nature is non-strenuous physical activity, as you know, and that can improve mood, decrease stress hormone production and increase longevity. (4) Average salivary cortisol concentrations of forest bathers are 12-13% lower compared with urban hikers. Forest bathing can also decrease sympathetic nerve activity, blood pressure and heart rate. (5)

#2 Boosts  immunity

Being surrounded by trees, rather than simply being outside, may explain the immune-boosting benefits of forest bathing. Many evergreen trees give off aromatic compounds called phytoncides that increase natural killer (NK) cells, your immune system’s lead defense against viruses and disease. NK cells are suppressed by chronic exposure to stress hormones, which can lead to a weakened immune system and even cancer. But NK cell activity is always higher after forest bathing and raises as your body’s exposed to more phytoncides.

#3 Makes you  smarter

Cognitive gains from forest bathing include a better mood to increased mental performance and creative problem solving. (7)

#4 Good for your respiratory system.

Forest bathing is a great opportunity to breathe some fresh air. Chronic exposure to polluted air from city living can negatively affect more than your lungs. Long-term exposure to smog and particulate matter can contribute to unhealthy cholesterol levels, raised blood glucose levels and atherosclerosis putting you at a greater risk for heart disease. (8,9, 10)

No forest? Here’s what you can do instead:

Forest bathing sounds great if you have access to a forest. But what happens if you live in the city or somewhere else that’s lacking in nature?  Here are some things to try:

  • Get outside anyway. No forest? No problem. Just find a natural area like a park or a quiet street in your neighborhood to walk for 20-40 minutes. Silence can have a profound effect on the relaxation of the nervous system, so leave your earbuds at home. Note: Avoid overexposure to air pollution by staying inside during peak rush hour, installing HEPA filters and adding air-cleaning plants to your home. Get out of town as often as possible to breathe fresh, clean air.
  • Practice earthing. Earthing or grounding is the act of reconnecting your body to the earth by walking on dirt or grass without shoes or touching part of your body to the earth. The energy exchange from the earth to your body promotes better sleep, reduced pain and a general sense of well-being. (11)
  • Diffuse essential oils into your office or bedroom. Phytoncides in cypress essential oil produces immune boosting effects similar to forest bathing. (12,13)


Want more on forest bathing and hacking anxiety? Check out this podcast with Evan Brand for more.

 

Click to read the complete list of references.

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By Bulletproof Staff

  • Doug Theis

    As a long time trail runner and lover of the outdoors, it’s cool to see the science around why I have always felt healed after a trail run. But the term “forest bathing” makes me want to laugh out loud. I guess it is shorter than “being in the woods.” Thanks for the science!

    • xena44

      ?????? yes! But it sure makes it sound much more esoteric and New Ager appealing. In other words, go outside and take your shoes off.

  • Great analysis. I’ve seen similar benefits myself when just walking in the woods or even outside if I’m not near a lot of nature. Good to know research agrees with my experiences as well!

  • Alex

    Great article!

  • Interesting article!

    Another interesting point in this is that many natural water sources around the world contain higher amounts of Lithium.

    Lithium has mood improving properties, fights depression, increases longevity and regenerates the brain.

    This is why historically, people have been bathing in natural spring waters and reaped the benefits with their health.

  • Wim Tilburgs

    I do this every day and it works for sure!

  • Taryn Swiatek

    During a very chronically stressful time in my life, I found myself becoming addicted to going to the forest after work. It took considerable effort and time to get to the forest, so it didn’t make logical sense why I was so compelled to do this, but it made a definite difference on my state of stress. Only now do I realize there is an official term for it called “Forest bathing” haha. But even better, there was another incentive …an ice cold creek ran through the forest. The water is from the mountain headwaters, and barely gets above freezing for most of the year. I slowly acclimatized to ice soaking in the cold water up to the base of my scalp, and for a certain amount of time (okay obviously do your research before doing it)…but WOW, what an experience for releasing chemicals in the brain!! The water had to be cold enough, I had to stay in long enough, and submerge my whole neck to the base of the scalp, but for stress relief and depression it made a huge impact in my experience.

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  • Gerardo Morillo

    Great article, I should try forest bathing and see how it works for me.

    Personally for me I have noticed great results in my mind and body system by doing 15-30 minutes at least once a day.

    Thanks for sharing.

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  • Thanks for the mention, always a pleasure to chat Dave!