Posted by on Aug 11, 2017 in Health Tips

Shinrin–yoku (aka: Forest bathing)

Shinrin–yoku (aka: Forest bathing)

By: Patrick Yeakey, MD

So what is this new thing we are starting to hear about? It’s actually one of the oldest things, and something we in the Pacific Northwest are naturally drawn to, yet often forget.

In 1982, the Forest Agency of the Japanese government premiered its shinrin-yoku plan. In Japanese, shinrin means forest. and yoku refers to “bathing, showering or basking in.” More broadly, it is defined as “taking in — with all of our senses — the forest atmosphere.”

The Japanese program was established to encourage people to get out into nature, to literally bathe the mind and body in greenspace, and take advantage of public-owned forest networks as a means of promoting health. There is a growing body of evidence that the practice can help boost immunity and reduce stress.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”  –John Muir

In contrast to hiking, forest bathing is considered less directed, melding mindfulness and nature immersion to improve health. That is not to say that a good hike could not be mixed with a mindfulness activity. Take moments during a hike to be aware of your surroundings and tune into what is around you. Take in some deep breaths; feel the breeze; and notice the smells in the air. Hear the creek bubbling and some birds off in the distance. Feel the soft moss on the bark of a tree. Doing these things can be very meditative, bringing peace and calm to your mind.

We already know of so many benefits of meditation, prayer and visualization. These can be accentuated in a nature setting. The business of everyday life — dodging traffic, making decisions and judgment calls, interacting with strangers — can be depleting. What man-made environments take away from us, nature gives back.

Forests, streams, rivers, lakes and oceans demand very little from us, though they’re still engaging, ever changing, and attention-grabbing. While man-made landscapes bombard us with stimulation, their natural counterparts give us the chance to think as much or as little as we’d like, and the opportunity to replenish exhausted mental resources.

Over the past decade, research has been done increasingly to understand why being present in nature is so beneficial. Some studies are very specific, such as determining how nature impacts blood pressure. One factor that helps explain the decline in blood pressure is that trees release compounds into the forest air that some researchers think could be beneficial.

Some tree compounds are very distinctive, such as the scent of cedar. In 2009, Japanese scientists published a small study that found inhaling tree-derived compounds (phytoncides) reduced concentrations of stress hormones in men and women, and enhanced the activity of white-blood cells known as natural killer cells.

Another study found inhaling cedar wood oils led to a small reduction in blood pressure. These are preliminary studies, but scientists speculate that the exposure to tree compounds might enhance the other benefits of the forest.

Personally I prefer to call it nature therapy or to “go get a dose of nature.”

With the growing popularity of “forest bathing,” organizations are developing to encourage its use. One organization now certifies forest therapists: One goal of this group is to encourage health care providers to incorporate forest therapy as a stress-reduction strategy.

There’s no question that stress takes a huge toll in the United States. A 2015 study found work-related stress accounts for up to $190 billion in health care costs. The hope is someday the health care system will include forest therapy into the range of reimbursable services.

Let’s not forget about the kids.  “Children will be smarter, better able to get along with others, healthier and happier when they have regular opportunities for free and unstructured play in the out-of-doors,” concluded one authoritative study published by the American Medical Association in 2005.  -Jon Henley, The Guardian

Now get out there and take a hike! A hike a day keeps the doctor away.

“Keep close to Nature's heart ... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”  -John Muir

“Keep close to Nature’s heart … and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”  -John Muir

Dr. Yeakey has a special interest in wilderness medicine, first aid, and outdoor survival skills. Outside of the office, he enjoys hiking, backpacking, natural foods cooking, and almost anything in the water. He is also the medical director for local Search and Rescue teams. Learn More about Dr. Yeakey