Science

The Science Behind the Practice of Shinrin-Yoku or “Forest Bathing”

Numerous scientific studies over the past decades have shown that the long-standing practice of forest bathing, a therapeutic immersion in the forest environment, can improve both physiological and psychological health.

Author

Alex H. Boukhari

Sunlight filtering through the trees in a serene forest, illustrating the practice of Shinrin-Yoku or forest bathing, which promotes mental and physical well-being through immersion in nature.

Mind, body and nature are seamlessly intertwined. This isn’t a new concept, but deeply rooted in the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku or ‘forest bathing’. Forest bathing was introduced in the 1980s as a response to the societal pressures and technology-related stressors of the time. It encourages individuals to get out into the forest and experience nature with all their senses.

While Japan introduced this concept, the deep-rooted connection between humans and nature has changed. Why do we feel less stressed and have more energy just by being in nature? The trees have a secret power.

Research has attempted to answer these questions, validating the intuitive idea that nature is indeed nurturing. The profound benefits of Forest Medicine — a harmonious blend of alternative, ecological and preventive health disciplines stands as an evidence-based preventive medicine, validated by extensive scientific research.

Three Proven Health Benefits of Forest Immersion

Numerous scientific studies over the past decades have shown that the long-standing practice of forest bathing can improve both physiological and psychological health.

1. BLOOD PRESSURE AND MOOD REGULATION

Forest bathing has been documented to reduce blood pressure. It also has a positive effect on mood, which is particularly beneficial for people with depressive tendencies. A typical immersion of about 2 hours can lead to the following results:

  • Reduces blood pressure
  • Relieves stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms.
  • Improves mood, particularly for those with depressive tendencies

2. CARDIOVASCULAR, METABOLIC, AND EMOTIONAL HEALTH ENHANCEMENT

Forest bathing is more than a serene escape; it’s a catalyst for comprehensive health improvements. A systematic review highlights the multifaceted benefits of this practice, detailing improvements in heart health, metabolic functions and emotional well-being.

  • Enhances heart health and metabolic functions, including better circulation (hemodynamic) and hormonal balance (neuroendocrine).
  • Boosts immunity, reduces inflammation and increases antioxidant levels.
  • Improved emotional state, including elevated mood, positive attitude and resilience.

3. STRESS ALLEVIATION AND IMMUNITY BOOSTING

Exposure to the serene ambiance of forests has been scientifically proven to influence physiological responses beneficially. Walking in the woods decreases cortisol levels, heart rate, and blood pressure, and reduces the body’s stress response.

The Role of Phytoncides, the Natural Compounds That Trees Release

Forests, especially evergreen trees, release beneficial natural chemicals known as phytoncides. These chemicals play a central role in the myriad health benefits observed in forests.

  • Phytoncides act as a natural defence mechanism for trees against potential threats such as bacteria, insects and fungi.
  • Phytoncides play a scientifically proven role in strengthening the human immune system, thereby improving its ability to fight off diseases.

Dr. Qing Li, a pioneer in Forest Medicine has conducted extensive research on the effectiveness of these compounds. In his studies, he found a positive correlation between higher phytoncide concentrations and improved human immune responses.

“Phytoncides have been shown to alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety while also reducing stress hormone levels.”

The Practice of Forest Bathing

Forest bathing goes beyond a mere walk in the woods. It can encompass various mindful activities, from slow walking to more structured practices such as Tai Chi, yoga and deep breathing. Some participants may also choose to simply sit, immerse themselves in the serene environment, and absorb the sights and sounds around them.

To optimise the therapeutic potential of forest bathing, many people opt for sessions led by experts. Trained forest therapy guides are able to set a deliberately slow pace that allows participants to engage deeply with the natural environment. This comprehensive approach, which addresses both the physical and mental experiences, intensifies the health benefits of being fully immersed in nature. 

Dr Qing Li emphasises the need for daily interaction with nature. This does not necessarily require being in a forest. “If you have trees or a park nearby, you can simply open your window,” he suggests.

Even a brief glimpse of nature can improve concentration. This is proven by research from the University of Melbourne, which found that just 40 seconds of observing a natural scene can improve alertness.

For those who spend time indoors, Dr Li offers alternatives: “If you don’t have a window, pictures of nature and green vegetation can suffice. Use them as screensavers or phone lock screens. And during breaks, just sit back and appreciate them.”

Opting for a longer immersion, such as a two-day programme in Taiwan, was associated with significant improvements in mental health, especially among middle-aged women. Not only were systolic blood pressure levels positively affected, but participants also reported an uplifted mood.

For those pressed for time, even a short 2-hour forest bath can have a transformative effect. Such short sessions have been shown to provide physiological benefits and help with stress management. It is an effective psychological relaxation strategy that is particularly beneficial for middle-aged and elderly people.

For older people, especially those with chronic heart failure, bi-monthly forest bathing sessions can be particularly beneficial. Research indicates that twice a month a trip to the forest brings additional health benefits.


The practice of forest bathing presents a tangible countermeasure to the stresses and pressures of our fast-paced lives. Through the calming embrace of nature, we discover a path to well-being.

Our connection with nature is both innate and rejuvenating, a sentiment echoed by numerous studies. Whether it’s a short, mindful immersion in nature or a guided, in-depth session, the forest promises tranquility, health and a reconnection to our primal roots.

At a time when technology and urbanisation threaten to cut our ties to the natural world, Forest Medicine reminds us that sometimes the best prescription is simply to return to nature.

Sources:

  1. National Geographic. Forest bathing: Nature walks for health and happiness.
    https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/article/forest-bathing-nature-walk-health
  2. NCBI. Forest bathing and public health: A review and future directions.
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  3. NCBI. The physiological effects of Shinrin-Yoku (forest bathing): Evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6589172/
  4. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine. Health benefits of forest bathing: A systematic review.
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  9. University of Melbourne. Forget siestas, ‘green micro-breaks’ could boost work productivity.
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  10. Semantic Scholar. The effects of forest bathing on stress recovery: A review.
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  11. NCBI. Therapeutic effect of forest bathing on human hypertension in the elderly.
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