I always carry with me a fond memory as a boy walking in the woods of Hubbard’s Hill in Lincolnshire near where I was brought up. I can still see those towering pines touching the clouds and smell the invigorating aromas of cedarwood and yew, as I walked with my family. There was a feeling of happiness, security and wellbeing in those woods and a sense of time standing still.
Time did however pass, and I have since lived all over the world with my work as a scientist in places like the rain forests of the Amazon and South East Asia, to woodlands in Japan and South Korea. But no matter where I travel, I always feel that same memory and sense of safety and wellbeing as I enter any woods; they are my home from home.
As a doctor of Pharmacognosy, I have a natural inclination towards all things botanical and it wasn’t long into my earlier student days that I learned the more scientific reasons for the ‘feel-good’ factor associated with walking in the woods, or what the Japanese call it, ‘shinrin-yoku’ or ‘Forest Bathing’.
In 1980’s Japan, ‘Forest Bathing’ was rolled out as a national health campaign to counteract the negative physiological ills associated with the then tech-boom to encourage people back to nature and reap the benefits of the great outdoors. A form of eco-therapy if you will.
Forest Bathing per se is not a specifically Japanese ‘art’, but rather many cultures have adopted their own understanding or spin of the positive health effects of connecting with nature, in particular woodland environments.
Scientific studies have demonstrated that activities involving exposure to forest environs may significantly improve one’s physiological and psychological health. I guess this is why we are seeing more health bodies and professionals prescribing forest bathing now as a natural and effective remedy for positive mental health to combat the stresses of our modern more urban lifestyles.
Plants and trees in wooded environments naturally emit antimicrobial and antibacterial essential oils. These are called phytoncides. Phytoncides are designed to protect plants from disease and insects and they contain a myriad of health benefits for people. When we walk in a forest, we breathe in the phytoncides which are the airborne chemicals that the plants and trees release. These have been shown to increase the rate and activity of our NK white blood cells. Phytoncide intake can also be cleansing and boosting for the immune system and can help to lower blood pressure, lift our mood; reduce stress and increase energy - and who doesn’t need that these days!?
This is an example of the great synergy of science and nature. On one hand we take in all the beauty and wonder of nature with our senses, but on the other there lies the invisible level and powerful scientific activity at play designed to heal and restore.