By Jackie Rainford Corcoran EBS Health Columnist
Most of us who live or vacation in southwest Montana know intuitively that spending time in nature is good for the mind, body and spirit. Now there’s science to prove it, thanks to a cultural trend in Japan called Shinrin-yoku, which translates to “bathing in the medicine of the forest” or “forest bathing.”
This does not involve soaking in a bath. Instead, it refers to soaking up the medicinal benefits of trees using all of your senses.
While the Japanese have revered the therapeutic effects of trees for centuries, forest bathing is not a traditional practice. In 1982, Tomohide Akiyama, director of Japan’s Ministry of Forests at the time, created a marketing campaign encouraging visitors to experience Japan’s many national forests, which are easily accessible and occupy 67 percent of the country.
In 1990, the Japanese public broadcasting network aired a documentary on the effects of 40-minute walks through the forest, specifically indicating a significant decrease in participants’ cortisol, or stress levels.
Interest in forest bathing became so great, and scientific evidence so promising, that the Japanese government in 2012 designated 48 official forests for therapeutic walking and allocated $4 million to continued research into its health benefits.
When we breathe the fresh air in forests we inhale phytoncides, which are airborne chemicals that plants emit to protect themselves from rotting and insects. These chemicals have a healing effect on our bodies and result in calming our nervous systems.
Studies on forest bathing subjects have demonstrated lowered blood pressure and decreased symptoms of mood disorders like seasonal affective disorder, anxiety and depression. The studies indicated patients slept better, had more energy, and showed a stronger immune response.
Researchers are still exploring whether exposure to forests can help prevent certain kinds of cancer. The practice seems to elevate a type of white blood cell called natural killer cells, which kill tumor- and virus-infected cells. While some results are promising, please note: forest bathing is currently prescribed for disease prevention, not treatment.
There’s also good news for those living in cities: you can take a forest bath anywhere in the world where there is a decent patch of trees, generally defined as land with a tree canopy cover of more than 10 percent of the area.
While hard and fast rules don’t seem to apply to how one plunges into forest bathing, here are some guidelines:
– Take a very slow walk in a wooded area. How slow? It’s recommended to travel under 1 mile in 40 minutes. (That’s really slow!)
– If going with friends, set aside quiet time.
– If you feel inclined, bring a book or journal.
– Take water or tea and leave the cell phone at home.
– If something raises your curiosity, stop and explore it closely.
– Most importantly, allow each of your senses to take in your surroundings. Invite yourself to become acutely aware of the smells, sites, tastes, sounds and tactile sensations.
For adrenaline junkies out there, this is a good “off day” activity. Interested in learning more? Check out “A Little Handbook of Shinrin-Yoku” by Amos Clifford.
This article first appeared in the Sept. 15, 2015, issue of Explore Big Sky and has been republished at the request of a Big Sky resident who was moved by it when it first ran. She asked that we share it again with our community and guests visiting this summer.
Jackie Rainford Corcoran is an IIN Certified Holistic Health Coach, culture consultant and public speaker. Contact her at Jackie@corehealthmt.com.
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