Support Your Immune System With The Japanese Art Of Forest Bathing

Your immune health is deeply connected to your mental well-being. With chronic stress being the norm these days, it can be easy to overlook self-care and never truly give yourself a chance to unwind. Consider this your reminder that it's okay to show up for yourself, and your immune system will thank you. 

What To Do 

The next time you visit a forest or your local park, notice how the sun falls through the tree branches and the interplay of light and shadow on the forest floor. Breathe in the spicy scent of pine and the musty smell of decaying leaves. Listen to the taps of falling needles and the wind whispering in the canopy overhead. Do you notice a greater sense of peace? A feeling of unity and communion with all things? 

Known as shinrin-yoku in Japan, forest bathing is the practice of fully immersing yourself in nature, opening all your senses to every sound, smell, and feeling. Forest bathing is essentially a type of nature therapy[1] that involves much more than taking a distracted walk through a park. It is a sensory meditation of nature’s beauty and healing presence. 

How To Forest Bathe 

Leave your iPod and headphones at home, find a beautiful forest or a park, turn off your phone, and open all your senses to the landscape. If you’re with a partner, resist the urge to speak. This is not a time to engage in fitness routines. There’s no destination, simply walk slowly or even sit. Know that with every inhale, you’re breathing in the trees’ outbreath. Sense your shared breath together and visualize how the branches of bronchi in your lungs mirror the branched patterns of tree branches. Notice the sounds and scents around you and notice any changes you feel in your body. What thoughts and feelings arise? Journaling, which has also been shown to strengthen immunity[2] is a helpful adjunct to forest bathing. If you wish, when you return home, write down or sketch your observations and feelings in a journal or diary.  

The Benefits

Research suggests that simply living near natural spaces is associated with numerous health and psychological benefits, in part due to the physiological relaxation that occurs when we spend time with plants and tree[3].

That spicy pine smell? That’s an essential oil called phytoncide, which is a compound the tree makes as part of its own immune system to protect against insects and microbial infections[4]. Researchers believe that when we breathe in this airborne chemical, our immune function may also improve[5]. Forest bathing has been shown to increase the number of immune cells called natural killer (NK) cells as well as NK cell activity[6] and may also enhance certain anti-cancer proteins[7].

In fact, forest bathing and simply spending time in green spaces has been shown to: 

  • Decrease blood pressure[8]
  • Improve depression[9]
  • Increase immune activity[10]
  • Decrease stress hormones[11]
  • Increase sense of awe[12]
  • Improve attention-deficit/hyperactivity symptoms[13]

City-dwellers, take heart: you can derive some physiological benefits from your urban parks and gardens; even experiencing nature through a window has been shown to have mental benefits[14]. If your city lacks accessible natural resources and you reside in a nature-deprived neighborhood, you can still lower your stress levels (which will help with immunity) just by looking at an image of a natural setting[15].

Sadly, systemic racism has made spending time in nature a safety issue for Black and Indigenous people and People of Color (BIPOC). Field Magazine has compiled a list of Black, Indigenous, and POC-owned outdoor collectives to follow and support. We ask that white allies defend BIPOC people’s rights to spend time outdoors and speak up against racism should you encounter discrimination in outdoor places—or anywhere.  

[1] Hansen, M. M., Jones, R., & Tocchini, K. (2017). Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing) and Nature Therapy: A State-of-the-Art Review. International journal of environmental research and public health, 14(8), 851. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph14080851   

[2] Murray, B. (2002). Writing to Heal: By Helping People Manage and Learn from Negative Experiences, Writing Strengthens their Immune Systems as well as Their Minds. PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi:10.1037/e303292003-033  

[3] Hansen, M. M., Jones, R., & Tocchini, K. (2017). Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing) and Nature Therapy: A State-of-the-Art Review. International journal of environmental research and public health, 14(8), 851. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph14080851   

[4] Department of Environmental Conservation. (n.d.). Immerse Yourself in a Forest for Better Health. Retrieved August 07, 2020, from https://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/90720.html   

[5] Li, Q., Kobayashi, M., Wakayama, Y., Inagaki, H., Katsumata, M., Hirata, Y., Hirata, K., Shimizu,

[6] Li, Q. (2010). Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function. Environmental health and preventive medicine, 15(1), 9–17. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12199-008-0068-3  

[7] Li, Q., Morimoto, K., Kobayashi, M., Inagaki, H., Katsumata, M., Hirata, Y., Hirata, K.,Shimizu, T.,

Li, Y. J., Wakayama, Y., Kawada, T., Ohira, T., Takayama, N., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y. (2008). A forest bathing trip increases human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins in female subjects. Journal of biological regulators and homeostatic agents, 22(1), 45–55.  

[8] Ideno, Y., Hayashi, K., Abe, Y., Ueda, K., Iso, H., Noda, M., Lee, J. S., & Suzuki, S. (2017). Blood pressure-lowering effect of Shinrin-yoku (Forest bathing): a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC complementary and alternative medicine, 17(1), 409. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12906-017-1912-z   

[9] Furuyashiki, A., Tabuchi, K., Norikoshi, K., Kobayashi, T., & Oriyama, S. (2019). A comparative study of the physiological and psychological effects of forest bathing (Shinrin-yoku) on working age people with and without depressive tendencies. Environmental health and preventive medicine, 24(1), 46. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12199-019-0800-1   

[10] Li, Q. (2010). Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function. Environmental health and preventive medicine, 15(1), 9–17. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12199-008-0068-3  

[11] Li, Q. (2010). Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function. Environmental health and preventive medicine, 15(1), 9–17. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12199-008-0068-3  

[12] Piff, P. K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D. M., & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology, 108(6), 883.  

[13] Kuo, F. E., & Taylor, A. F. (2004). A potential natural treatment for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: evidence from a national study. American journal of public health, 94(9), 1580–1586. https://doi.org/10.2105/ajph.94.9.1580  

[14] Raanaas, R. K., Patil, G. G., & Hartig, T. (2012). Health benefits of a view of nature through the window: a quasi-experimental study of patients in a residential rehabilitation center. Clinical rehabilitation, 26(1), 21–32. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269215511412800  

[15] N., van Mechelen, W., & van den Berg, A. E. (2015). Autonomic Nervous System Responses to Viewing Green and Built Settings: Differentiating Between Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Activity. International journal of environmental research and public health, 12(12), 15860–15874. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph121215026 

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