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Recharge and Rejuvenate with Forest Bathing

There’s something about being in nature that makes you feel better. Inhaling fresh clean air and the deep aroma of the forest, the recognizable melody of animals and plants of the forest, and the stunning beauty all around unite to ease stress and worry and help you think more clearly. Bathed in the proverbial forest, your mood is enhanced, body rejuvenated, spirit recharged, and energy and vitality restored.

What is forest bathing (forest therapy)?

A decades-old practice in Japan, forest bathing (or shinrin-yoku), literally means to bathe in the atmosphere of the forest using all of your basic senses—sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste. It involves a profound connection with nature, bridging the gap between us and the natural world. Slowing down and immersing yourself in the natural environment has become an important part of preventative healthcare in Japan. Critics may ridicule this practice as nothing more than a stroll through a forest, but the growing body of evidence suggests that getting outside in nature is food for the mind, emotions, body, and spirit.

People who use essential oils are familiar with the terms terpenes and terpenoids. Inhaling these volatile organic compounds found in all essential oils provides a broad range of biological activities that support human health. Similarly, terpenes and terpenoids emitted by the trees of forests “bathe” us in beneficial volatile organic compounds when walking among nature. These compounds may reach their peak concentration during daylight hours, on clear calm days, from noon to the early afternoon, particularly in forest dominated by conifer trees. (1)

For such a simple health strategy, forest bathing provides huge benefits. Here are some of the benefits science has revealed so far.

Aid cardiovascular health

Your blood pressure is a major indicator of cardiovascular fitness. High blood pressure can damage arteries and increase the risk that they will clog, threatening both your health and quality of life. Japanese researchers studied the effects of walking in a forest on blood pressure. Middle-aged adults who walked in a forest for 90 minutes experienced reduced systolic and diastolic blood pressure as well as reduced stress. (2)

Another study tested the effects of forest bathing on middle-aged men with blood pressure on the high side of normal. The men strolled through the forest, practiced deep breathing, and were allowed periods of time to lie down in the forest. Systolic and diastolic blood pressure, as well as cortisol, all significantly decreased after forest bathing. Moreover, the participants reported improved mood and feeling more relaxed and natural. (3)

A third study evaluating elderly persons with high blood pressure showed that blood pressure was not lowered by forest therapy, but salivary cortisol levels significantly decreased. (4) Quality of life also improved. A reduction in salivary cortisol levels suggests the participants were less stressed. Cortisol plays a role in increased blood pressure. The reduction in cortisol and increased quality of life means that forest bathing may be useful as part of an overall high blood pressure management program.

The cardiovascular benefits of forest bathing aren’t just for the middle-aged or elderly though, research shows that young people can benefit as well. When comparing walking in a forest to urban walking among young adults, researchers found that nervous system activity was balanced towards relaxation, which relaxed the cardiovascular system. (5) Overall, this suggests that forest bathing may support cardiovascular longevity.

Benefits of forest bathing have even been observed in people with chronic heart failure. (6),(7),(8)

Improve emotional and mental health

Most anyone who has walked through a forest or even a fruit orchard can tell you that they felt more relaxed. Interestingly, researchers found that just viewing a kiwifruit orchard image can reduce stress. Middle-aged females were split into two groups. One group viewed a kiwifruit orchard image for 10 minutes while the other group viewed an urban building for the same amount of time. The group that viewed the fruit orchard image experienced increased parasympathetic nervous system activity (a sign of recovery and relaxation), a modest decrease in heart rate, and reported feeling more comfortable and relaxed as well as an improved mood state. (9) Maybe you should plaster your office or another room with nature pictures.

A larger study of almost 500 participants showed that forest bathing significantly reduced hostility, depression, and stress in people who were chronically stressed. (10) Interestingly, the more stressed a person was, the greater the benefits of the forest therapy. Similar findings were reported among people who had depressive tendencies when compared to those who did not. While both groups of people realized physiological and psychological benefits after a day-long session of forest bathing, people with depressive tendencies had more dramatic responses. (11) Mother Nature seems to recognize those who need her loving care the most and delivers extra benefits to them.

Remarkably, other researchers found that forest bathing improved mental health measurements in people being treated for a psychotic illness in in a psychiatric hospital. (12) Patients at the hospital were taking to a local forest covered mainly by conifer trees (Scots Pine, Norway Spruce) and some oak and common beech trees. They were encouraged to walk and participate in other exercises like stretching for 105 minutes. The greatest improvements were seen in confusion and depressive-dejection feelings and a significant decrease in anxiety was observed.

Even shorter walks of 15 minutes in nature can improve mental and emotional health. (13)

Relieve pain and reduce inflammation

Chronic pain can significantly reduce quality of life and take a toll on physical, mental, and emotional health. Adults aged 25 to 49 were taken to a forest filled with pine, oak, and maple trees for two days and participated in various indoor and outdoor activities. At the end of the two days, forest bathing improved both psychological and physical measures. The participants reported less pain and depression and a significant improvement in quality of life. (14) Amazingly, the forest therapy also improved their immune function as indicated by enhanced natural killer cell activity.

Exercising in the forest may provide greater benefits according to one study. The researchers compared the pain-relieving effects of forest bathing in comparison to forest bathing with exercise in people with chronic neck pain. People in the forest bathing with exercise group experienced greater neck pain relief than those in the forest bathing group alone. (15)

Another study found that two-hours of exposure to a forest reduced inflammatory cytokine levels in young adults. (16) Reduced inflammatory cytokines indicates forest bathing can reduce systemic inflammation. The forest intervention also increased antioxidant capacity.

Improve respiratory and immune function

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic inflammatory lung disease characterized by difficulty breathing, cough, wheezing, and excess mucus production. Forest bathing significantly decreased proteins—perforin and granzyme B—released by natural killer cells that are involved in the progression and activity of COPD in elderly individuals with COPD. (17) The therapy also reduced pro-inflammatory cytokine and stress hormone levels and improved overall mood state. Based on the findings, the researchers concluded forest bathing has a positive health effect on elderly people with COPD.

Speaking of natural killer cells, these white blood cells play a major role in the fight against cancer and viruses. Adults who participated in three-day and 2-night forest bathing trips experienced increased natural killer cell activity that lasted for 30 days after completion of the trip. (18) Forest therapy also improved levels of proteins released by natural killer cells that attack viruses and cancerous cells. In contrast, a trip to the city had no effect of natural killer cell numbers or activity. Forest bathing appears to have long-term benefits on immune system function.

Three additional studies noted increased natural killer cell activity and levels of anti-cancer proteins in people of various ages after trips to a forest. (19),(20),(21) So, a monthly trip to the forest may protect you against infections and reduce your risk of cancer.

Conclusion

The existing research is clear. Humans have an intimate connection to nature and immersing yourself in a natural environment has huge human health benefits. If you need a mood reset, want to reduce stress, or improve your physical health, make every effort to inhale the health-promoting aroma of a forest at least once per month.

Eating dark chocolate may improve mood

Mood disorders affect almost ten percent of U.S. adults and nearly fifteen percent of adolescents, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. With so many people suffering from mood disorders people are looking for answers in nature and food. Fortunately, a recent study suggests eating a common treat—dark chocolate—may positively affect mood and relieve depressive symptoms.

Researchers from University College London joined forces with Canadian scientists from the University of Calgary and Alberta Health Services Canada to assess the benefits of chocolate consumption on mood. They analyzed data from over 13,000 adults included in the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and assessed their depressive symptoms according to scores on the Patient Health Questionnaire. Other factors such as height, weight, marital status, ethnicity, education, household income, physical activity, smoking, and chronic health problems were taken into account to ensure the study only measured the effects of eating chocolate on mood.

Remarkably, what the scientists found was that people who reported eating dark chocolate in two 24-hour periods had 70% lower risk of reporting relevant depressive symptoms, even after adjusting for the above-mentioned confounding factors. (1) In addition, people who were in the top 25% of eating any type of chocolate were the least likely to report depressive symptoms. The study suggests that eating a bit of dark chocolate on a regular basis can positively benefit mood.

Chocolate contains several beneficial nutrients—fiber, iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, selenium, and zinc—and phytocompounds—powerful antioxidants and flavanols—that have proven health benefits. (2) For example, chocolate flavanols improve vascular function and reduce blood pressure. (3a, 3b, 3c) The antioxidants protect cholesterol against oxidation, which can reduce heart disease risk. (4) Interestingly, improved blood flow triggered by chocolate flavanols may also protect the skin against sun damage by increasing blood flow increasing hydration and density. (5) Eating flavanol-rich cocoa can even improve brain function. (6)

Among these beneficial ingredients are phytocannabinoids that can produce a feeling of euphoria when consumed. (7) Phytocannabinoids have the ability to bind to receptors in the endocannabinoid system, which regulates mood stress, response, immunity, inflammation, and much more. This stimulates an endorphin release that has an antidepressant-like effect and elevates mood.

Food is a significant and easy way to alter mood levels because of the effects of food consumption on dopamine receptors in the brain. Certain food ingredients (like chocolate) interact with these receptors to activate the reward and pleasure centers of the brain. Scientists have even observed that people may crave foods that contain these pleasure-triggering ingredients when feeling sad.

Dark chocolate contains 50%–90% cacao solids, whereas milk chocolate contains from 10%–50% cacao and significantly more sugar. A reasonable portion of dark chocolate to reap health benefits is about 10 to 40 grams per day. Some studies report benefits with as low as 6.3 grams consumed, while others found benefits at 48 grams. However, keep in mind that 40 grams of dark chocolate can provide 220 calories and 13 grams of fat, so don’t overdo it at the expense of your waistline.

So go ahead and indulge in a little dark chocolate to help improve your mood and promote greater happiness. It’s certainly an easy way to stimulate the production of endorphins, create feelings of pleasure, and promote a positive mindset.