Monday, December 25, 2017

        Blog #70: Help Balance Body and Mind With Forest Bathing

Today, when vast expanses of wilderness are being destroyed by pollution or plundered for fuel, housing, and food for earth’s exploding population, Forest Bathing, or Shinrin-Yoku, as it is called in Japan, is gaining popularity in the US, Europe, Australia, Japan, Korea, and Central America, among other places.  So many scientific studies have documented the health benefits of Forest Bathing that doctors across the world now write prescriptions for it.  Forest Bathing involves spending time in a wooded area, relaxing and tuning into sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and tactile sensations while relaxing in a wooded area. Benefits include diminished stress, depression and anxiety, lowered blood pressure, improved or even normalized blood sugar levels, and strengthened immune response to threats such as infections and cancer. 

Forest bathing involves walking at a very leisurely pace in a wilderness or park area that is as free of pollution and distraction as possible.  Focus is on the therapeutic aspect of the experience.  There are no destination or time constraints.  Instead, people walk slowly, and may sit down or lie down on the ground.  They may close their eyes for a few minutes and then open them, looking around as if for the first time.  They may notice unusual leaves, the sound of wind rustling branches, distinctive bird calls, the scent of earth, or the sensation of a tiny ant crawling over their hand.

Increasingly, people are turning to trained guides to lead them.  There are now quite a few schools that offer certification training as forest guides throughout the world.  Most guides work in the counseling or health care fields. Finland launched a government-supported taskforce on forests and human health in 2007. Things went global with the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine (INFOM) in 2011. A North American chapter was established in 2013.

PubMed returns well over 100 studies on the health benefits of forest bathing, including studies indicating that it significantly lowers blood pressure (-1.4 percent), heart rate (-5.8 percent), cortisol levels (-12.4 percent) and sympathetic nerve activity (-7 percent) compared with city walks, while also alleviating stress and depression.  Some studies conclude that exposure to phytoncides, the airborne, aromatic chemicals/oils emitted by many trees, have a long-lasting impact on people’s immune system markers, boosting natural killer (NK) cells and anticancer proteins by 40 percent.

As the amount and quality of wilderness areas diminishes and as more anti-biotic-resistant bacteria develop, Forest Bathing may play an increasingly significant role in the world healthcare system.  Physicians and therapists are increasingly prescribing time in parks and forests, as was common before the pharmaceutical era.  Studies have found that a retreat of two to three days is optimal, and some benefits last a month or more. In Japan and Korea, Forest Therapies are integrated into the healthcare system and covered by insurance. 

This blog’s offer:  each month, I lead a Nature Writing Group at the North Park Village Nature Center at 5801 North Pulaski Road, in Chicago.  After sharing our writing, we go for a leisurely walk in the nature preserve.  We next meet on Sunday, January 28th from 11 am until 1 pm, by the fireplace.  Feel free to join us.  If you have any questions about this please email or call my office.  Happy Holiday season and New Year to you.