Earth Notes: Forest bathing

By Joyce White

When I first heard the term “forest bathing,” I had images of naked people frolicking through the woods. Or maybe splashing in a forest brook. Or maybe even stretched out on sun-warmed pine needles, perhaps even taking a snooze — but not in blackfly season. Or winter.

But no, “forest bathing” is organized and has a Japanese name, shinrin-yoku. The July 27, 2018 issue of The Week in Health and Science describes it as “using the senses to soak up the sights, smells and sounds of the natural world” — which sounds pretty much like what most of us do on a woods ramble anyway. Wouldn’t you know, there have been scientific studies — “more than 140 studies involving nearly 300 million people in 20 different countries” — revealing that spending time in nature or living near green spaces contributes to good health and is “associated with a lower risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, early death and high blood pressure,” for example. It seems to me that at least some of those studies might be unnecessary.

The March 9, 2018 Boston Globe even ran an article by Brian O’Connor about forest bathing, which he says “encourages immersion in the natural world, a mindful meditation that embraces our surroundings rather than excludes them.”

Then he goes on to describe forest bathing as an organized therapy led by Nadine Mazzola who had learned about “phytoncides, aromatic volatile substances emitted by trees that boost the ‘natural killer’ or NK cells in human immune systems.” She went on to become certified by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy as guide and then founded New England Nature and Forest Therapy Consulting from which she leads forest therapy sessions.

Imagine that! Having to pay someone to lead you on a walk through the woods! And I had thought it was the increased oxygen that forest trees were showering me with that increased my sense of well-being. But no, it’s also those phytoncides stimulating my immune system! It doesn’t say anything about nudity in her forest therapy sessions so I guess these volatile substances must penetrate clothing.

O’Connor quotes another forest bathing “expert,” Tam Willey: “Forest Bathing is most effective when practiced regularly over time. It takes time to build up NK cells in the blood and lower the products of stress hormones. The more time one spends absorbing the phytoncides released by the trees, the more lasting the results can be.” Willey leads regular forest bathing walks at the Arnold Arboretum but, like Mazzola, also partners with groups such as the Massachusetts Audubon Society and the Appalachian Mountain Club.

In her 2017 book, The Nature Fix, Florence Williams puts the forest bathing concept in perspective. It got its name, shinrin-yoku, as an organized practice in Japan where there is a scarcity of forested land. “People come out from the city and literally shower in the greenery,” she quotes her Japanese forest bathing guide.

We in Maine, on the other hand, don’t usually need to go far to find a woodsy spot for a ramble. I’ve wandered Maine woods trails since childhood and having woods walking organized as “forest bathing” and sold as therapy seems a bit superfluous to me. And yet, I know from long experience that I feel better physically and happier in mood after spending time in woodsy places, especially if there is a brook running through. So I guess we’ve come to a situation in our culture when a simple woods ramble is not part of everyday life for too many people.

Williams uses the work of Qing Li at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo to discuss the NK (natural killer) cells which protect us from disease agents and can be measured in a laboratory. “A type of white blood cell, they’re handy to have around since they send self-destruct messages to tumors and virus-infected cells.”

Li used an experiment to find out if nature could increase NK cells. He took a group of middle-aged Tokyo businessmen into the woods in 2008 and they spent a couple of hours hiking each day for three days. By the end, blood tests showed their NK cells had increased 40 percent and the increase lasted for seven days. Even a month later, the NK count was still 15 percent higher than when they began.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) is well known for his love of nature and walking. Williams quotes from Thoreau’s essay Walking: “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least…sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” No need for shinrin-yoku then, but times have changed.

Joyce White is a resident of Stoneham.

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