From kombucha and gua sha to adaptogenic mushrooms and CBD oil, wellness trends come and go but few remain as relevant or as important as shinrin-yoku.
In Japan, shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing’ has been considered a form of preventive healthcare since the 1980s. Defined as the simple and therapeutic act of spending time in a forest, the practice has been widely hailed for its myriad health-boosting benefits.
Decades worth of research conducted by the Japanese government has shown that forest bathing can increase immunity, lower blood pressure, bolster brain health, and reduce symptoms of anxiety and stress.
Today, there are even 62 accredited forest therapy sites in Japan, where government-certified shinrin-yoku therapists accompany hikers on their walk.
In Japan, shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing’ is seen as a form of preventive healthcare with government-backed scientific research into the myriad health benefits
It's not only in Japan. Around the world, other countries inspired by the health benefits of shinrin-yoku have adopted the practice, opening forest trails, specialised centres, or conducting research of their own.
South Korea has invested more than $14 million in the National Center for Forest Therapy, which features a 50km healing forest trail and extensive spa facilities. The California-based Association of Nature and Forest Therapy certifies guides, while earlier this year, India launched the nation’s first forest healing centre in Uttarakhand.
In the UK, the NHS is also championing the healing power of nature through its ‘green social prescriptions’, which link people impacted by COVID-19 to nature-based activities, such as tree-planting, community gardening and of course, forest bathing.
While in Germany – where forests cover nearly a third of the country – the Forest Protection Association has launched a mindfulness forest app, pairing dedicated walking trails with breathing and other sensory exercises.
Why is forest bathing so good for you?
(hint: it's the essential oils)
Whether or not you believe the hype, it's difficult to refute the scientific research into forest bathing, which has linked the practice to improved health.
Some of the most fascinating studies have been led and shared by Dr Qing Li, a medical doctor at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School, president of the Society for Forest Medicine in Japan, and the author of Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing.
Decades worth of research conducted by the Japanese government has shown that forest bathing can increase immunity and lower stress hormones
According to Dr Li’s ground-breaking research, the benefits from forest bathing are a direct result of phytoncides.
These natural, volatile compounds are what give trees their characteristic woodsy scent, and with antimicrobial, antibacterial and antifungal properties, they also act as the trees’ defense mechanism against bacteria, insects and fungi. Hinoki, cedar, oak, pine and spruce are just some of the trees to release the aromatic compounds, which include alpha-pinene and d-limonene.
Dr Li’s work has revealed that simply breathing in these natural, aromatic oils helps to lower blood pressure, cortisol levels and heart rate; reduce stress and anxiety, and even improve sleep, mood and immune system function.
Specific oils – such as those from Kumano Kodo cedar – have even been shown to counteract symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
Some of Dr Li’s most interesting research shows that phytoncides can actually increase the number of the body’s natural killer cells – a type of white blood cell that boosts our immunity against bacteria, viruses, and tumors. What’s more, the effects have been shown to last for up to a month after visiting the forest. Even exposure to small amounts of phytoncides for relatively short periods of time can trigger a response in our parasympathetic (rest) nervous system.
In one study researchers found that people who spent just a few hours walking through a forest or wooded area had lower levels of cortisol. Another study showed a significant improvement in stress levels after participants enjoyed forest views for just 15 minutes.
The role of aromatherapy
With social distancing, isolation and our increasingly urbanised lives, not all of us are lucky enough to be able to mindfully stroll through a forest, let alone access a park or a garden.
But according to Dr Li, it’s still possible to enjoy the benefits of forest bathing through essential oils, which are rich in phytoncides. It is, he says, a simple way to connect to nature – and reap the same health benefits – without even having to go outside. Li even proved this theory by exposing 12 volunteers to Hinoki essential oil inhalation, which was diffused in a hotel room, resulting in a 20 percent increase in NK cells.
Dr Li recommends using a diffuser with a few drops of essential oil, to instantly trigger a calming response.
To emulate the “peace and quiet” of a Japanese forest bathing experience, Dr Li suggests diffusing Hinoki wood, or white cypress, rosemary, cedar wood, pine and uplifting eucalyptus, which are some of his favourite oils.
But there are plenty of therapeutic phytoncides present in other aromatic wood essential oils, such as Desert Rosewood, which has a long history of medicinal and ceremonial use among Aboriginal communities in Australia. Potent aromatic molecules are also found in resins like frankincense and in flowers like lavender, which are both rich in naturally occurring compounds that are proven to calm the mind and reduce stress and anxiety.
So if you’re feeling cooped up or woefully detached from nature, the simple practice of diffusing essential oils can help to relax the mind, ease tension and stress, and importantly, open up the senses, which according to Dr Li, “bridges the gap between us and the natural world.”
When we open up our senses, “we are in harmony with the natural world, we can begin to heal,” he says. “Our nervous system can reset itself, our bodies and minds can go back to how they ought to be. No longer out of kilter with nature but once again in tune with it, we are refreshed and restored.”