Here’s how we pick ourselves up when we’re feeling low, on the farm:
There is now solid scientific evidence supporting “eco-therapy,” or the practice of re-connecting with nature to make yourself feel better. The Japanese practice of forest bathing is proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, boost the immune system, and improve overall feelings of wellbeing.
Forest bathing—basically just being in the presence of trees—became part of a national public health program in Japan in 1982. Nature appreciation—picnicking en masse under the cherry blossoms, for example—is a national pastime in Japan, so forest bathing quickly took.
Forest bathing is simple: Just be with trees. No hiking, no counting steps on a Fitbit. You can sit or meander, but the point is to relax rather than accomplish anything.
What’s so great about being with trees? It has to do with something called phytoncides. Phytoncide, or “aroma of the forest, is a substance emitted by plants and trees. “Phyton” means “plant” in Latin, and “cide” means to exterminate. Phytoncides are substances produced by plants and trees to protect themselves from harmful insects and germs. Scientists have found that for humans, inhaling these phytoncides seems to actually improve immune system function.
City dwellers can benefit from the effects of trees with just a visit to the park. Brief exposure to greenery in urban environments can relieve stress levels, and experts have recommended “doses of nature” as part of treatment of attention disorders in children. Evidence suggests that regular contact with nature appears to improve our immune system function and our wellbeing.
From 2004 to 2012, Japanese officials spent about $4 million dollars studying the physiological and psychological effects of forest bathing, designating 48 therapy trails based on the results. Qing Li, a professor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, measured the activity of human natural killer (NK) cells in the immune system before and after exposure to the woods. These cells provide rapid responses to viral-infected cells and respond to tumor formation, and are associated with immune system health and cancer prevention. In a 2009 study Li’s subjects showed significant increases in NK cell activity in the week after a forest visit, and positive effects lasted a month following each weekend in the woods.
Experiments on forest bathing conducted by the Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences in Japan’s Chiba University measured its physiological effects on 280 subjects in their early 20s. The team measured the subjects’ salivary cortisol (which increases with stress), blood pressure, pulse rate, and heart rate variability during a day in the city and compared those to the same biometrics taken during a day with a 30-minute forest visit. “Forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments,” the study concluded.
Being in nature calmed the HPA axis, working to calming the hypothalamus- pituitary-adrenal systems that respond to stress in the body. The parasympathetic nerve system controls the body’s rest-and-digest system while the sympathetic nerve system governs fight-or-flight responses. Subjects were more rested and less inclined to stress after a forest bath.
Trees soothe the mind and spirit, too. A study on forest bathing’s psychological effects surveyed 498 healthy volunteers, twice in a forest and twice in control environments. The subjects showed significantly reduced hostility and depression scores, coupled with increased liveliness, after exposure to trees. “Accordingly,” the researchers wrote, “forest environments can be viewed as therapeutic landscapes.”
So get yourself out there and hug a tree! You’ll find that it hugs you back, with a long-term boost to your health and mental wellbeing.