Nature is Nurture – the under utilised health benefits of ‘Shinrin-yoku’

Written by Grainne Donnelly on . Posted in , .

When is the last time you spent time….I mean actual time…amongst nature. The practice of forest bathing, or “Shinrin-yoku” originates from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Japan2 and involves a visit to a forest for the purpose of relaxation and recreation.1 Exposure of the body to a forest environment is proposed to offer a healing approach that restores the physical and psychological health of the human body through a five senses experience: vision, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. Research supports the positive physical and mental health benefits offered by forest bathing3,4, especially in enhancing immunity, treating chronic diseases, regulating mood, and reducing anxiety and depression.4-7 Additionally, more benefits are expected to be gained from exercising or meditating in a forest environment than in an urban environment.8,9

The mechanisms behind these benefits stem from the research findings that forest bathing can help to decrease blood glucose and blood pressure, reduce the concentration of cortisol in saliva, reduce prefrontal cerebral activity and stabilise autonomic nervous activity in humans.10 So why doesn’t everyone understand the physical and psychological health benefits that exploring the great outdoors can offer?

The reality of the modern, westernised lifestyle is that many people will hear a brief mention of forest bathing and think that it is some kind of airy fairy fad. With health and wellbeing increasingly at risk and compromised by modern day pollution, sedentary behaviour, stress, life demands, diet culture, etc…forest bathing and its benefits should be recognised as a public health priority. After all…it is pretty much free and accessible to all.

If the global Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we need to prioritise our health and well-being. We need to become more versatile and less reliant on man-made, industry-led forms and access to exercise. When the world shuts down including gym access, then we need to avail of other options for maintaining physical activity. Right now, I cannot even imagine a world that returns to the same level of public crowding or indoor gathering without some consideration for social distancing. We have all learned to understand the benefits of the open fresh air and outdoors, and the more that the the concept of forest bathing is researched, the more we appreciate the value that it offers, including preventative health benefits.11

Moreover, if you are dealing with any health issues, whether it be back pain…or pelvic floor dysfunction…autoimmune conditions…or anxiety/depression…the potential health benefits gained through forest bathing should not be underestimated and may actually improve the management of your condition. Anyone who attends my pelvic health clinic will be well aware of the link between physical and psychological health and wellbeing. For example, while pelvic pain or an uncomfortable sensation of pelvic organ prolapse may be your main concern, the wider bio-psycho-social factors that influence the intensity of your symptoms may be more related to stress levels, sleep deprivation, lack of self efficacy or sedentary behaviour. Yes, there is a physical component to your presenting complaint, however the actual perception of symptoms is much more driven by these wider whole-systems considerations. This is why some women may have a significant pelvic organ prolapse and experience no symptoms or awareness of it what-so-ever, while other women with minimal descent have significant symptoms impacting their quality of life. Similarly, while medical imaging often helps us reason the source of pain, many of us who do not experience back pain will demonstrate radiological features on imaging.

Basically, what I am trying to say is that nature is good. Nature is nurture. And we all need to experience more of it. So, with all this in mind, I bought a wee bit of forest. It came up for sale beside my home and we made the decision to invest in our lifestyle, health and wellbeing rather than spend on the usual first world purchases. We have not regretted it since. My kids will grow up experiencing nature on a daily basis, climbing trees and exploring. I will have more regular exposure to forest bathing. There is something extremely calming about breaking up the hustle and bustle of daily life and work with a quick walk around the forest. It is very grounding. My newfound love and hobby has evolved into creating a walking trail around it all. Between wooden bridges to cross the river, clearing fallen trees and planting more wild plants and flowers, I am in my element.

Here is a little insight into how the trail is developing:

Have you engaged in nature/forest bathing? Do you find it beneficial? I would love to hear your insights and experiences.

References

  1. Li, Q., Morimoto, K., Nakadai, A., Inagaki, H., Katsumata, M., Shimizu, T., Hirata, Y., Hirata, K., Suzuki, H., Miyazaki, Y., Kagawa, T., Koyama, Y., Ohira, T., Takayama, N., Krensky, A.M., Kawada, T., 2007. Forest Bathing Enhances Human Natural Killer Activity and Expression of Anti-Cancer Proteins. International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology 20, 3–8.. doi:10.1177/03946320070200s202
  2. Li Q. Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function. Environ Health Prev Med. 2010;15(1):9.
  3. Oh B, Lee KJ, Zaslawski C, Yeung A, Rosenthal D, Larkey L, et al. Health and well-being benefits of spending time in forests: systematic review. Environ Health Prev Med. 2017;22(1):71.
  4. Twohig-Bennett C, Jones A. The health benefits of the great outdoors: a systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes. Environ Res. 2018;166:628–37
  5. Song C, Ikei H, Miyazaki Y. Physiological effects of nature therapy: a review of the research in Japan. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2016;13(8):781.
  6. Lee I, Choi H, Bang KS, Kim S, Song M, Lee B. Effects of forest therapy on depressive symptoms among adults: a systematic review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017;14(3):321.
  7. Hansen MM, Jones R, Tocchini K. Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) and nature therapy: a state-of-the-art review. Int J Environ Res Public Health.2017;14(8):851.
  8. Furuyashiki A, Tabuchi K, Norikoshi K, Kobayashi T, Oriyama S. A comparative study of the physiological and psychological effects of forest bathing(Shinrin-yoku) on working age people with and without depressive tendencies. Environ Health Prev Med. 2019;24(1):46.15. Mao GX, Lan XG, Cao YB, Chen ZM, He ZH, Lv YD, et al. Effects of short-term forest bathing on human health in a broad-leaved evergreen forest in Zhejiang Province. China. Biomed Environ Sci. 2012;25(3):317–24
  9. Shin YK, Kim DJ, Jung-Choi K, Son YJ, Koo JW, Min JA, et al. Differences of psychological effects between meditative and athletic walking in a forest and gymnasium. Scand J Forest Res. 2013;28(1):64–7
  10. ParkB.J., Y.Tsunetsugu,T.Kasetani,T.Ohira,N.Matsui,N.Takayama,H. Murata,M. Yamaguchi, A.Yasukouchi, H.Hirano,T. Kagawa and Y.Miyazaki.2005. Physiological effects of bathing in the forest atmosphere(I)-Using salivary cortisol and cerebral activity (TRS) as an indicator.J. Physiol. Anthropol. Appl. HumanSci.24:/88
  11. Timko Olson, E.R., Hansen, M.M., Vermeesch, A., 2020. Mindfulness and Shinrin-Yoku: Potential for Physiological and Psychological Interventions during Uncertain Times. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17, 9340.. doi:10.3390/ijerph17249340

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