If you’re anything like me, you get stressed out because of work — or your kids or parents or even an unexpected traffic jam or small injury. Stress is an ongoing issue in our modern world.
Sometimes when we’re stressed getting outside and taking a walk can help. Our mind takes a break from whatever is causing our angst and our bodies take in outside air, which helps us relax. But did you know there’s an added benefit to taking a walk specifically in the woods?
It’s not that it’s a more serene, prettier experience, though there’s that too.
The added benefit of walking in the woods is the scent that trees make. And I’m not talking about the generally refreshing smell of the leaves or wind or soil, though that’s a part of it. I’m talking about phytoncides.
Phytoncides are the essential oils trees create to ward off pests and harmful bacteria. They are limonenes, turpines, carene, pinene, and others. If you’ve ever walked through a grove of cedars, you’ve smelled them. It’s oftentimes a spicy cool scent but not always. For instance, garlic gives off phytoncides as well, that strong familiar fragrance that wafts up when you smash a clove. Whatever the phytoncide, researchers have discovered that when humans inhale them, they boost the immune system.
Two Ground Breaking Studies
Dr. Qing Li, who I mentioned in my post about the most reputable researchers in plants and mental health, has led the research on walking in the woods or “forest bathing.” He conducted experiments where Japanese businessmen between the ages of 37 and 55 walked for two hours in the mornings and afternoons on forest paths.
Dr. Li and his team sampled their blood and found that their T cells, which are the Natural Killer cells our bodies make to fight off cancer, jumped in activity. In fact, they increased about 50 percent compared to their baseline measurements. Wow!
Another fun fact: the effects lasted a full seven days after the trip to the forest.
Because he wanted to learn whether a person had to physically be present in the forest, Dr. Li and his team conducted another experiment where they asked twelve men between the ages of 37 and 60 to sleep in a hotel for three nights.
With a vaporizer, the team released the scent of Hinoki Cypress tree oil (Chamaecyparis obtusa) during the night. After taking the subjects’ blood, they found a 20 percent increase in NK cells! Subjects also reported feeling more rested and less fatigued.
Dr. Li has gone on to study other aspects of this phenomenon. He’s found walking in the forest not only increased NK cells but also reduced blood pressure and heart rate.
His and other researchers’ studies have shown an increased activity of the parasympathetic nerve system, the part of the nervous system that helps us relax.
Related to that, studies show forest bathing reduces cortisol, our stress hormone. And finally, forest bathing reduces anxiety, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion.
So if you’re feeling stressed this week, consider visiting a large public park or wooded preserve on the weekend. Walking for an hour or two among trees will physically as well as psychologically remove you from your daily problems.
Plus, it will heal more than just your mood, it’ll increase your body’s ability to fight off one of our most dangerous diseases. Think of it as free medicine only nature can prescribe.