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.
Even More Good Results
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.
I’m pleased to share a sneak peek of my piece, “The Scent of a Daphne,” which will appear in the anthology Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction. It’s not really a story about a daphne but it is a story with a daphne in it. It shares a snippet of my time in horticulture school when my husband was undergoing cancer treatment and I was trying to study plants. Mostly, it’s about the unexpected, precious gift I received during that time.
“The Scent of a Daphne”
“It was early September, my second semester of horticulture school, and class was about to begin. I stood outside the door on the narrow sidewalk that ran along the building. The day was warm and the door propped open with a wedge. Flies buzzed in and out. Students chatted and shuffled through notebooks while friends hugged at seeing each other again. I hadn’t made any friends yet, but that didn’t bother me. I had other things on my mind. Like the situation I had to explain to Tim, my professor.
He was an outdoorsy 50-something with wavy gray hair dressed in jeans, boots, and a canvas jacket. “What’s up?” he asked.
It was actually what was down. Down in my life. As in down and out, or beaten down, or in a downward spiral. My husband, Ethan, had just had an operation, not to remove an organ or clean out dangerous tissue or repair a ligament. The surgeon had installed a port in his chest, a small flat disc with a little tube connected to his artery so chemotherapy drugs could be injected into his bloodstream. He was about to be poked with a lot of needles a lot of the time and surgically inserting a port was easier on his body than poking the same veins again and again.”
Thank you for reading. There are so many amazing pieces in Rooted. When our editor sent me the galleys, I fell in love with the collection right off the bat. It’s now available at Amazon and through the publisher, Outpost19.