Combat Stress & Boost Immunity with Shinrin-Yoku
Stress is bad for your body. No one can deny that. Repeated studies have found that stress contributes to any number of negative impacts on our overall health and has been concretely linked to:
- Obesity and overeating
- High blood pressure and heart disease
- Mental health disorders like depression
- And even physical pain
Today we’re unpacking how stress leads to weight gain and how you can lower stress and cortisol levels. In short, when you’re stressed your adrenal glands pump out adrenaline and cortisol to be able to react to the perceived danger. Cortisol provides the body with glucose which gives you the needed energy but also stimulates your appetite – often for sugary, fatty foods. The result? Weight gain or difficulty losing unwanted pounds.
The bottom line? “More stress = more cortisol = higher appetite for junk food = more belly fat,” says Shawn M. Talbott, PhD, a nutritional biochemist.
Lowering stress doesn’t have to be an involved and active process. In fact, the Japanese have used semi-passive methods for centuries to naturally decrease stress levels and improve overall health. Modern research has just begun to corroborate the results of these ages-old traditions with scientific experiments. Some of these tests have even pointed to chemical explanations of the complicated inner workings of these ancient practices that have for years seemed near-miraculous in their effectiveness.
One such treatment for stress and the health-related ailments associated with it is the Asian tradition of forest bathing.
The Japanese Tradition of Forest Bathing
Forest bathing may sound like some New Age folk treatment, but the Japanese have been engaging in this healthful practice for centuries. In the traditional language this process or activity is called Shinrin-yoku (literally bathing in the forest). The key component of this ancient tradition is getting outside and experiencing nature with all five of your senses in a meaningful way.
How disconnected from nature are we? The average American spends 93% of his or her time indoors (according to a study sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency).
The Health Benefits of Forest Bathing
Dr. Qin Li, author of Forest Bathing (the definitive book on the subject) has long claimed that shinrin-yoku can:
- Reduce blood pressure
- Lower stress
- Improve cardiovascular and metabolic health
- Lower blood-sugar levels
- Improve concentration and memory
- Lift depression
Now, more researchers are testing these benefits in a scientific fashion and the results amazing. What exactly triggers these healthful physical responses?
Natural Forest Chemicals and Compounds Help Us Heal
Exposure to healthy amounts of natural light and walking in nature opens us to several healthful, natural, chemical compounds that cause physical changes within our bodies.
Your sense of smell is one of the most powerful and evocative senses you have. Eastern medicine has long relied on the power of smell to provide some of the most impactful results. The practice of aromatherapy is centuries old and dedicated to how our sense of smell can affect our total wellbeing.
Forest bathing is a wonderful way to gain exposure to phytoncides. Phytoncides are the natural oils within plants that produce scents. And while evergreens (like pine and cedar trees, as well as smaller coniferous shrubs) produce the highest concentrations of phytoncides, nearly every plant adds its own specific chemical mix to the sensory bouquet.
But what do phytoncides do?
Scientific studies have shown that exposure to phytoncides:
- Significantly increased the numbers of certain immune cells within our body and can even increase the production of cancer-fighting proteins
- Immediately decrease levels of certain stress hormones
- Improve the duration of restful sleep
- Create subjectively measured pleasant moods
- And even lower blood pressure and heart rate
Helpful Bacterial Exposure
You know that lovely “dirt” smell that many of us find so endearing and even relaxing? It’s created by a bacterial blend unique to that geographical region. For years expert wine makers have referred to the bacterial terroir of a region when discussing the quality of grapes produced in the area, but it turns out that bacterial population does more than just make our foods taste better.
Dr. Qin Li calls out Mycobacterium vaccae (or M. vaccae) as one of the most healthful natural bacteria found in soil (especially within forested regions). M. vaccae has been scientifically proven to:
- Activate the immune system
- Increase natural anti-inflammatory cytokines
- Be associated with improved self-scored moods
Indeed, M. vaccae may be the biggest contributor to that “good earth” smell that we love (which scientists call geosmin).
How to Forest Bathe in the City
You can forest-bathe anywhere there are trees; in hot weather or in cold; in rain, sunshine, or snow. You don’t even need a forest! Once you know how to do it, you can do shinrin-yoku anywhere – in a nearby park or in your garden. Look for a place where there are trees, and off you go.
Forest bathing involves engaging your five senses to let nature enter through your ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands, and feet.
As Dr. Qin Li puts it: “You are not going anywhere. You are savoring the sounds, smells and sights of nature and letting the forest in.” He suggests slowly wandering through nature, listening to your senses, and letting them guide you. This slow, methodical, almost meditative movement makes forest bathing a healthful activity for those capable of any activity level.
Engaging our five senses leads to a sort of awakening of a sixth sense. This metaphysical stimulation is a key component of shinrin-yoku as practiced in Asian cultures and is believed to help align our bodies with our spiritual essence, creating a harmony that stimulates total health and wellbeing.
If you’re feeling stressed make time in your day to get outside and enjoy the benefits nature bestows upon us.