Can Nature Help Us Heal? Forest bathing, a room with a view, and new studies about nature, stress and brain function.

With the burst of extraordinary weather we’ve been experiencing here in Durham, many of us are turning our thoughts to the outside (if you can brave the pine pollen that’s drifting down like snow!). Whether it’s planting a garden or walking in the woods, I hear repeatedly, and know from my own experience, that being in nature is nourishing at a deep level. What better way to “ground” than to feel the earth under your feet or spilling through your hands as you create cozy beds for your herbs or flowers? As with many things that we’ve known instinctually and experientially for ages, science is beginning to back up that feeling of wellbeing we achieve from being in nature.

Several years ago I learned about the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, forest bathing. I just love that phrase! What a delightful image, to soak in the sounds, smells and sights of the forest. It simply means walking in the forest or a natural environment, but the translation adds a nuance that conveys what we do when we give ourselves over to immersion, when we are really soaking in nature, delightfully saturated with the experience. Research shows that people who participate in forest bathing have lower blood pressure, lower pulse rates, and lower cortisol levels.

The Atlantic Monthly recently published an article called How Nature Resets Our Minds and Bodies. The author referenced the research findings about shinrin-yoku, in addition to other studies that show how being immersed in nature allows us to regain mental clarity and heal better after surgery. Early stage breast cancer patients did markedly better on challenging mental tasks when they had spent time in nature. And a study of patients recuperating after gall bladder surgery compared people whose hospital rooms afforded them a view of trees with patients who looked out at a brick wall. Patients who looked at trees while they recovered healed and went home faster, experienced less depression, and required at least 50% less painkillers than their counterparts with the brick wall view.

Portable EEG monitoring is now possible, so researchers are able to track the affects of being in nature in real time. As reported in the New York Times, researchers in Scotland published a new study this month in The British Journal of Sports Medicine. They attached these new, portable EEGs to subjects as they walked through different urban and rural environments. They discovered that after the intensity of urban stretches, the brain was able to reset itself while in nature, allowing participants to recoup from the effects of a tremendous input load and reducing mental fatigue. Doctors involved in the study suggest breaks from the workday to be outdoors, as “It is likely to have a restorative effect and help with attention fatigue and stress recovery.”

Perhaps it’s worth spending some extra time outside to see if whatever might be ailing you will improve? I know I always feel better when I do. I’m going to go wash the dirt from under my fingernails and the pollen out of my hair now.

Wishing you a peaceful heart.


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2 thoughts on “Can Nature Help Us Heal? Forest bathing, a room with a view, and new studies about nature, stress and brain function.”

  1. This is my experience too. And I saw a paper that said there was a positive effect on hormones as well as cortisol, and they identified the cause as chemicals released by trees. You motivated me to do some more research… here are other things I found, with links:

    Mother Earth News article

    “In addition, studies showed increased heart rate variability, which is a good thing because it means the circulatory system can to respond well to stress and can detect a dominance of the “calming” branch of the nervous system (the parasympathetic nervous system).”

    “The Nippon Medical School showed that forest bathing (either a day trip or a couple of hours daily over three days) can have a long-lasting influence on immune markers. [] Specifically, there were marked increases in the number of natural killer cells, increases in the functional activity of these antiviral cells, and increases in the amount of intracellular anticancer proteins. The changes were noted at a significant level for a full week after the trip.”

    National Institute of Health study

    “The results of a study using the Profile of Mood States (POMS) test demonstrated that a forest bathing trip significantly increased the score for vigor and decreased the scores for anxiety, depression, and anger. Habitual forest bathing may help to decrease the risk of psychosocial stress-related diseases.” (This article is long and very medical, but is packed with medical support for the health benefits of forest bathing. There is a section I found very compelling called “Effect of phytoncides (essential oils) from trees on human immune function” — basically states that there are solid anti-cancer effects as well.)

    In other words, a very interesting article, thank you!

  2. Pingback: Forest Bathing makes it to CNN! | Intuitive Insights Blog • News, Classes, and Events • WholeSpirit

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