Forest BathingForest Bathing

What Is Forest Bathing? How the Japanese Relieve Stress Outdoors

You can connect to the healing power of nature in many ways. For centuries, humans have come to wild places to relax and recharge.

Whether you love listening to the sound of the surf breaking on a sandy beach or spending a sunny morning walking to a remote mountaintop, there are many activities that can help explore the natural benefits nature can have for both your physical and mental health.

In Japan, there is a special way to connect to the association of nature and mental health: forest bathing.

What Is Forest Bathing?

According to David and Austin Perlmutter, co-authors of "Brain Wash: Detox Your Mind for Clearer Thinking, Deeper Relationships, and Lasting Happiness," forest bathing gained popularity in Japan in the 1950s. Also known as shinrin yoku — which literally translates to "forest bath" — it is the practice of "bathing" in the atmosphere of the forest. Participants in early Japanese shinrin yoku experiences would simply walk through the woods, enjoying the presence of the trees as they absorbed the quiet benefits of forest therapy.

While it started out as a simple meditation practice, researchers quickly began to discover that the simple practice of taking walks in the forest created a host of long-lasting health benefits for body and mind alike. Before long, science began to credit the practice of shinrin yoku.

Participants in shinrin yoku increase their well-being by taking walks in a forest environment either alone or with forest therapy guides who help them access the relaxing power of walking through nature. Forest therapy isn't the same as exercising. It doesn't necessarily involve raising your heart rate as hiking or jogging would. The focus here is on the mental health benefits of immersing yourself in the natural world and letting your own mood guide your activity. It's essentially a chance to step back from the cares of everyday life and simply be.

Read: How a Trip to the ER Changed How I Manage Stress

Why Forest Bathing Works

Although it sounds simple, the practice of forest bathing has a host of scientifically supported benefits. Simply spending 20 minutes intentionally interacting with the great outdoors creates a wellness ripple effect that has long-lasting benefits for both body and mind.

Also: 9 Ways to Lower Cortisol

Stopping To Smell The Roses

One way forest bathing works is through our sense of smell. Think of your favorite floral perfume or of the way you might dab on a little essential oil when getting a treatment at the spa. We know instinctively that natural smells interact with our brains to produce an increased sense of well-being.

As we breathe in the forest air, we're breathing in benefits on a deeper level than we realize — all the way down to a cellular level. People who have spent time in the forest are believed to have higher levels of "natural killer cells," which are critical to the body's ability to fight off viruses and prevent tumors from forming.

As the Perlmutters write in "Brain Wash,": "The mere sniff of a certain scent can shift brain waves and activity from those associated with disease and cognitive decline to those linked with health and wellness." The authors explain that part of the reason natural smells work so quickly to calm our unsettled emotions is that smells can cross the blood-brain barrier, which they refer to as the "biological gate between the blood and the brain."

Inhaling a natural smell works instantly to calm our scattered minds and restore us to a sense of health. And forests are full of wonderful smells — from the fresh green scent of the tree canopy to the sweet smell of wildflowers. An intentional walk through the trees creates an opportunity to practice an instinctive connection to forest therapy, letting our brains process the profoundly soothing sensory input of natural smells.

Related: Why Caring for Houseplants Should Be Part of Your Self-Care Routine

Reduced Stress And a Healthier You

Ways to Manage Your Stress

The benefits of forest therapy don't stop with smells. In fact, some of the most important ways that a walk through the trees increases well-being are much larger than what we can pick up with our noses. The research shows that mindfully spending time in forests can:

  • Reduce your blood pressure
  • Increase feelings of mindfulness
  • Increase the quality of your sleep
  • Raise your energy levels
  • Improve your mood
  • Increase your ability to find deep focus
  • Boost your immune system
  • Accelerate your recovery from illnesses and injury
  • Reduce stress, and increase coping mechanisms for when it occurs

The most powerful of these effects are tied to preventing your brain from overproducing stress hormones, which can have a number of negative impacts on health. Prolonged exposure to the hormone cortisol can cause hair loss and cause your hair to grow more slowly. While caring for your hair with GRO Hair Serum or other hair wellness products is helpful, it's also important to find ways to reduce your stress, such as forest bathing

According to the Perlmutters, "Chronic stress takes the prefrontal cortex offline, so by lowering our stress hormones, nature is giving us a great tool in maintaining higher-level thinking." This reduction in hormone levels creates a corresponding increase in happiness and socially productive behaviors.

Also: How to Minimize Hair Loss From Stress

Nature and Happiness

Aside from decreasing stress, the evidence shows that spending time outside works to increase your overall health and well-being. Studies show that spending time in nature reduces instances of depression and may actually make therapeutic interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy more impactful. This is due both to the experience of walking through the natural world, as well as a possible side effect of increased vitamin D exposure, which may impact mental health and is chronically low for many Americans. Discussing a problem on a peaceful walk with a friend rather than texting about it is an easy way to take advantage of this effect.

The Perlmutters believe that exposure to the outdoors increases the health of the prefrontal cortex, which they believe allows for "better self-control, more thoughtful decisions, and improved regulation of our emotions and impulsivity." Studies show that exposing people to the beauty of the natural world increases feelings of awe at the majesty of the natural world.

People who are exposed to natural beauty are more likely to behave helpfully and display empathy toward others — possibly due to the beneficial effects of exposure to nature on the health of the prefrontal cortex. The list of benefits goes on and on. As the Perlmutters put it, "Nature ultimately rewires the brain for peaceful well-being, and supports the body's overall physiology. It is clear that we need nature to thrive. And its benefits are within our grasp today!" Taking a forest bath is an easy (and beautiful) way to start reaping those benefits.

Read: How Inflammation Affects Your Hair

How To Go Forest Bathing

If you're interested in discovering a forest bathing experience of your own, there's no need to go all the way to Japan. Recreating the effects of forest therapy is simply a matter of finding space to intentionally experience nature, wherever you are.

One resource to consider is the work of Qing Li, a leading researcher of what he calls "forest medicine," who can help guide you through the traditional Japanese approach to forest bathing for health. But you don't need a book to get started. Instead, simply let your senses be your guide.

First, take time to unplug. If you have your phone with you, turn it off or silence it. Start walking slowly through the trees, breathing in the air. Tune in to your senses. Do you hear the sound of birds? Do you see the sunlight shining through the branches? Do you smell the forest air? Observe your body moving through space, as part of the natural world. Try to focus openly on your experiences and let nature wash over you.

Even if there are no forests near you, you can still experience the benefits of forest bathing by going outside. Simply taking a walk through a beautiful park, or even a quiet street, can have similar calming effects.


Photo credit: Skitterphoto/Pexels

Disclaimer: Information in this article is intended for general informational and entertainment purposes only. It is not intended to constitute medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek professional medical advice from your physician.