When I think of nature, I can almost feel the sweet piney aroma swelling in my nostrils. Or the wet revival of fresh rain, ripening the scent of every floral and fauna in delightful harmony. In these moments, when I am surrounded by this fragrance, I inhale so deeply my lungs could burst and bloom flowers. Perhaps this has been my addiction to the outdoors all along, bathing in the fresh air, a cacophony of effortless incense.
Some Japanese cultures have adopted this as a medical treatment called Shinrin-yoku, meaning, “to take in the forest atmosphere” or “Forest Bathing.” After several studies of participants submerging themselves in the outdoors, researchers found measurable proof that nature can have a biological impact on our wellbeing. Spending time in the forest reported a boost in the immune system, reduced stress levels, reduced blood pressure, accelerated healing from illness, increased energy levels, and improved sleep. After these findings, it became a widely accepted practice in Japan to suggest a walk in the forest as a treatment for both physical and emotional ailments.
Upon trying to assess just what it was about being in the forest that produced these consistent effects, researchers strategized two theories. The first being the visual stimulation that the forest provides, different colors and patterns all existing in beautiful synchronicity. Could exposure to these natural sights be the reason for such positive health benefits? The second theory considered what the body has physically taken from the forest as it passed through.
Remember the fresh air I mentioned? What makes it so fresh is the collection of terpenes emitted from the plants and trees throughout the forest. Each plant species gives off unique aromatic resins, pine trees casting pinene, lavender releasing linalool, or a thick patch of lemongrass giving off that sweet Myrcene scent. All of these terpenes come together with every inhale that we take. Could these terpene aromas be the force behind making forest bathing so successful?
Isolating the two theories, researchers gave a group of individuals only the visual benefits of the forest and recorded the effects. Similarly, individuals sat in a room defused with terpenes and recorded any effects. While both groups showed signs of the aforementioned effects, it was minuscule compared to both variables working together in a real nature setting. It seemed nothing could quite replicate the tranquility of an actual forest.
Terpenes have been the main contributor behind other popular medicinal treatments, such as essential oils or cannabis. Many terpenes carry antiviral, antifungal, or anti-inflammatory properties. When walking through nature, the highest concentration of terpenes exists between 3-6ft from the ground, which, ironically enough, is right where our human nostrils usually reside. In many ways, our earth shows us that it exists to take care of us, and forest bathing proves that. Sometimes the best medical treatment is taking deep breaths on a walk through the wilderness.
Click here to review studies of health benefits from being in nature.