No claw-footed tub in the woods here. No Calgon fantasies for the frazzled mind or romantic shower under a waterfall. (Sorry to disappoint.) Think more science, less whimsy, but definite Primal roots. Forest bathing, as it has been dubbed, is actually a studied medical practice. In Japan, the research is spawning a whole new dimension of patient treatment called “forest therapy.”
Forests, like other wild settings, engage our senses in more subtle but evolutionarily familiar ways than our typical modern environments. Sounds in nature are quieter but more subtly layered. Our sight is more expansive. Our sense of touch, finer. Our smell, more acute. Surrounded by nature, our perception reorients to its default setting. As we’ve highlighted in the past, an increasing amount of research shows just how “natural” time in nature is for our physiological and psychological well-being. Exposure to green space offers protective factors against depression and anxiety and can help alleviate the symptoms of ADD. Instinctively, we know this and have likely experienced it. When we step outside our commotion-filled, asphalt-coated environments and truly inhabit a wild space, we’re more relaxed, more at peace. The mind finds quiet and the soul, release.
Yet, the research behind forest bathing takes all this a dramatic step further. Time in a wild setting, studies indicate, unleashes a powerful cascade of hormonal and cellular responses. Salivary cortisol, for example, dropped on average 13.4% when subjects simply looked at a forest setting for 20 minutes. Pulse rate, blood pressure and sympathetic nerve activity decreased as well. Even more remarkable is the significant – and lasting – impact on so called “natural killer” cells, powerful lymphocytes known to fight off infection and attack cancer growth. A longer three day trip in the forest with daily walks resulted in a 50% rise in NK activity as well as an increase in the number of NK cells! The forest exposure, researchers found, also resulted in increased anti-cancer protein expression. Tests further indicated a rise in the levels of intracellular granulysin, perforin, and granzymes A/B and a decrease in urinary adrenaline. What’s perhaps most surprising is this: subjects who participated in this series of forest bathing trips showed immune NK benefits that lasted more than a month. This finding, the researchers suggest, indicates the protective benefit of a monthly trip to the forest environment. (Have any weekend plans?) Yet, additional studies suggest that part of this immune boost is attributable to phytoncides, wood’s essential oils. Score on for aromatherapy. It’s interesting food for thought.
As a result of these studies, government entities in Japan are partnering with the medical industry to hold free health checkups at park areas and to create designations for “official” forest therapy sites. Finally, more companies are opting to include forest therapy in health care plans.
What I love about this research is the big picture implication. Without disparaging other daily efforts, let me say this: however ardent our efforts are to improve diet and exercise, a healthy life is so much more than the sum of a few prescribed parts. (Missing the forest through the trees, you might say….) The ultimate message I take from forest therapy is this: far from a social or cultural indulgence, living with and within the wild feeds the body as well as the soul. Encountering nature each day (in whatever way we can) offers a means of genuine nourishment and actualization. The benefits, however dramatic or obscure, are undeniable. The more I learn, the more amazed I am at the intricate interplay between our physical functioning and environmental influences. Ultimately, we’re primal animals down to the genes. We live best when we live in congruence with that fact. For me, the Primal Blueprint is about honing in on that essential experience. I’ve not only been healthier but happier and more at peace since choosing this lifestyle. The evolutionary model – the Primal logic – is there to be relished.
On that note, everybody, have a great weekend. Get out and enjoy! Thanks for reading.