International Day of Forests is marked on 21 March every year to highlight the importance and significance of forests and raise awareness about forest restoration. Much has been written about the ecosystem services that forests provide. They purify the water, clean the air, protect the soil, help sequester carbon to fight climate change, and provide food and medicines. Healthy forests are vital for all aspects of a healthy planet, from livelihoods and nutrition to biodiversity and the environment.
Every year the United Nations declares a theme for the International Day of Forests that addresses one of these many aspects of the important role of forests. The theme for 2023 is Forests and Health. This highlights the many connections between human health and forests—from providing food and other life-sustaining resources, including life-saving medicines.
The contribution of forests on physical health have been well documented, but perhaps not as well-known are the therapeutic effects on mental health. This area has been the field of study of Dr Qing Li who has researched and documented what intuition and common sense have long believed: that being among trees is healthy; it can have positive effects on sleep, energy levels, immune function, and cardiovascular and metabolic health.
This research is well known in Japan and the idea has become popular under the name Shinrin-yoku or Forest bathing. Forest Bathing is described as the art of plunging oneself in nature to revitalise and enliven the mind, body, energy and to trigger the therapeutic elements of nature.
Forest bathing or therapy originated in Japan in 1980s. Dr. Qing Li is considered to be the founder of this therapy. Dr Qing Li was born in a small village in China and grew up surrounded by nature. He came to Japan in 1988 to study advanced medicine where he was focusing on the effects of environmental chemicals, stress, and lifestyle on immune function and human health. During this period he spent a week camping on a thickly wooded island with his friends. This visit had a profound impact on him, not just personally, but also changing the direction of his professional life.
Experiencing the feeling of well-being amidst the trees, and since it is well-known that stress inhibits immune function, Dr Qing Li developed the hypothesis that immersion in the forest may have a beneficial effect on the immune system by reducing stress. He tested this hypothesis by conducting many experiments on patients with physical as well as mental health issues. He looked at the effects of walking in forests and of phytoncides (the scents that trees give off) on immune cells, stress hormones, blood pressure and heart rate. He compared the effects on mood and mental state (anxiety, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion) of walking in forests versus walking on treeless city streets.
He focussed his research on what he calls ‘forest medicine’. As he describes this: Some people study medicine, some people study forests; I study forest medicine to find out all the ways in which walking in the forest can improve our well-being.
Forest medicine which encompasses the effects of forest environments on human health is recognized as a new interdisciplinary science, belonging to the categories of alternative medicine, environmental medicine, and preventive medicine.
The terms Shinrin-yoku (literally Forest (Shinrin) bathing (yoku) in English) were first defined in a paper he wrote in 2007.
In his research, Qing Li has found that forest bathing had a healing effect on the mind as well as the body. It reduced blood pressure, reduced stress, improved mood, increased ability to focus, even in children with ADHD, accelerated recovery from surgery or illness, increased energy level, improved sleep, boosted immune system functioning, with an increase in the count of the body’s Natural Killer (NK) cells.
As an outcome of Dr Qing Li’s research, the government of Japan established Shinrin-yoku as a formal practice. This was not only to encourage city-dwelling people to connect with nature. The idea was also part of a campaign to protect the forests: If people were encouraged to visit forests for their health, they would be more likely to want to protect and look after them. The Japanese government invested a lot of money in forest bathing with the goals of protecting the forests, promoting human health, and preventing lifestyle-related diseases.
So what exactly is Forest bathing? This is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging. It is simply being in nature, moving slowly, and connecting with it through all our senses: sight (colours), hearing (forest sounds), taste (fruits and herbs), smell (fragrances from different plants) and touch (feeling textures of leaves and barks). So Shinrin-yokuis the entire experience of immersion in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through all our senses.
The idea behind Shinrin-yoku is very simple: it is the belief that if a person visits a natural area and explores it in a relaxed way, they can achieve physical and mental benefits that are healthy and restorative. It is a form of preventative health care that can be incorporated in nature settings anywhere. You don’t necessarily have to travel to a forest to experience the effects of Shinrin-yoku. Even half an hour in a small park can work its magic. As Dr Li reminds us:
The best way to deal with stress at work is to go for a forest bath. I go for shinrin-yoku every lunchtime. You don’t need a forest; any small green space will do. Leave your cup of coffee and your phone behind and just walk slowly. You don’t need to exercise, you just need to open your senses to nature. It will improve your mood, reduce tension and anxiety, and help you focus and concentrate for the rest of the day.
Today, world over, we have become an increasingly urban and indoor species, focussing solely on screens for a large part of our waking hours. All aspects of our life and lifestyles have led to an escalation of stress, anxiety and depression. Before we sink further into these morasses, let’s take a few minutes to heal ourselves in nature.
Forests and Health: the theme of International Day of Forests this year is best captured in the words of the guru of Shinrin-yoku:
Forests reduce our stress, boost our immune system and help us to live longer, better and happier lives. Our health and the health of the forest go hand in hand. When trees die, we die. If our forests are unhealthy, then so are we. You can’t have a healthy population without healthy forests.