In Japan, nature has long been revered. Shinto remains a key faith in the country, Trees and nature are central to Shinto, which holds the belief that spirits inhabit trees that reach one hundred years of age.
Yet by the 1980’s spending time in nature had reached unprecedented lows in Japan, with its urban population having soared from 18% in 1920 to 76% in 1980. This had a hugely adverse effect, with levels of depression and suicide levels soaring. As part of the government’s response to the problem, in 1982 the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries introduced an officially sanctioned form of stress management, which they called Shinrin-yoku, born out of years of research conducted by scientists who are still to this day releasing more and more scientific data to back up their research which showed overwhelmingly that spending time in the forest is exceedingly good for us. Early research of Shinrin-yoku, translated as Forest Bathing in English, demonstrated that twice-daily, 40-minute sessions walking in a cedar forest were enough to lower stress levels, heart rate, and blood pressure,
So how does it work?
Trees emit volatile organic compounds known as phytoncides which act as a natural defence against bacteria, fungi, and insects. When we walk through a woodland or forest, we breath in the air containing these phytoncides and these have been found to greatly benefit humans in many ways. One of the most significant is by inducing significant increases in the number and activity of natural killer (NK) cells. NK cells are one of the ways our bodies fight cancer by killing off tumour cells.
These can last for as long as a month. But it doesn’t end there. When we spend time in woodland and forests (2 hours or more) the range of other proven benefits include:
• Boosted immune system functioning, with an increase in the count of the body's Natural Killer (NK) cells • Reduced blood pressure • Reduced stress • Improved mood • Increased ability to focus, even in children with ADHD • Accelerated recovery from surgery or illness • Increased energy level • Improved sleep
Journalist Olivier Guiberteau wrote an article recently about an experience he had with Shinrin-yoku in Japan and how that later came back to him during his walks in Epping Forest during the pandemic. He learned that as Homo sapiens, we’ve spent 99.99% of our evolution in forested, natural environments and only 0.01% of our history spent living in modern, artificial surroundings. He realised that his new forest ritual had begun to “nurture a link I hadn’t even realized needed repair”. This is born from the idea that human beings have a biological need to be connected with nature - called biophilia, from the Greek meaning 'love of life and the living world'. It's because we have evolved in nature that we have a biological need to connect with it, even if we’re often not consciously aware of it. It's in our DNA and is therefore vital to our wellbeing.
There are around 62 forest trails in Japan where you can get your cortisol (stress) levels and blood pressure tested, along with sleep patterns and other health indicators checked. You’ll then receive prescribed time to spend amongst the trees to help relieve your anxiety, boost your immune system and bring your body, mind and spirit back into alignment. But you don’t have to travel to Japan to reap the benefits, they can be experienced in any woodland here in the UK including our private educational reserve, Nower Wood. And excitingly, the UK’s first research paper into the health benefits of Forest Bathing has recently been published and the findings will help UK healthcare providers and policy makers understand the effects of Forest Bathing and implement it as a social prescription to improve wellbeing.
To book a 2.5 hour Forest Bathing experience at Nower Wood go to the booking section of the website. The cost is £38 and there are various dates scheduled for throughout the year.
Further reading and relevant research