Nature therapy and forest bathing

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“In Japan, they have dedicated ‘shinrin-yoku’ parks – which means to ‘bathe in the atmosphere of the forest’. This is their proactive medicine to keep themselves healthy, mentally and physically. In Europe, they are protecting parks from logging – devoting them to forest therapy. I think it’s only a matter of time before Canada will do the same.”

Ronna Schneberger is a forest therapy guide with the Canadian Council for the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, based in Alberta.

‘Forest Bathing’ is a therapy for just about every condition – from elevated stress levels to chronic illness – and there is a sizeable body of research to support the concept. It has been shown to alleviate depression, lower levels of the harmful ‘stress chemical’ cortisol; reset brain programming: critical thinking, decision making, empathy, calm the nervous system; as well as having a positive effect on everything from blood pressure to your resting pulse.

Schneberger says the concept of forest bathing is known world-wide. This spark of ingenuity is based on the recognition of our innate, physiological connection with nature.

 “Our biology knows what to do, it responds with a re-calibration and re-setting of itself. We are tuning into our senses, being present, it’s a somatic experience – this was how ‘shinrin-yoku’ was created. Forestry and fisheries [representatives] had encouraged people to go outside. It was to [simultaneously] protect the forest – through zoned preservation – and create health among the people.”

As a forest therapy guide, Schneberger has witnessed a variety of transformative experiences amongst individuals on the trail.

“It’s like they become more alive, and far more present. It gets them into that deeper, reflective state. Some things I hear from people on the trail are, ‘Gosh, I haven’t felt this way since I was a kid, I had no idea I was missing this side of myself’. Or, ‘I need to do this more often, just as much as I need to exercise.’”

Much research has been dedicated to the therapeutic affects of forest bathing and the findings are encouraging.

“It’s been shown that time in the forest can help to increase your natural killer cells (NK) – which are the cancer and tumour fighting white blood cells. This can be a powerful boost to the immune system. They attribute this boost to organic chemical compounds that the trees give off – called Phytoncides. It’s how the trees protect themselves from viruses and fungi.  When we go into the forest, we get them on our skin and they help us to boost our natural killer cells.”

NK cells kill tumors, or virus-infected cells, through the release of perforin. Perforin does this by inducing the programmed death of a cell that has become cancerous, or infected with a virus. Studies have found that phytoncides (from trees) significantly increase cytolytic activity (destruction of the unhealthy cells) and significantly increased intracellular levels of perforin. Phytoncides have been found to restore decreased human NK cell activity, and our decreased perforin.

Schneberger recounts an experience with an individual at one of her forest retreats:

“She had cancer and had her Neutrophils cells – a type of white blood cell that fights against infection – measured before attending the retreat. Two weeks after her time at the retreat, those cell levels had gone up three times – from 0.8 to 2.4 – her doctor was amazed.

Schneberger adds this individual was also following a physician recommended diet of reduced sugar, certain medications and stress management; but had wanted to try forest bathing as a complimentary therapy. After noting her heightened neutrophil levels, the woman stopped forest bathing for one month and those levels plummeted. Upon reinstating her regime, sitting under her willow tree for two hours a day, for one week – she observed positive results – neutrophil levels climbed and by the end of the summer she was cancer-free.

Schneberger says the ANFT would like to develop a liaison with Canada Health. Citing examples of physicians who write Nature Prescriptions for their patients.

“A Canadian physician started writing nature prescriptions a few years ago – she noticed a significant reduction in the amount of prescribed pharmaceuticals required by her patients. Some of these drugs were for stress, depression and anxiety. A Washington D.C doctor sends people into their state parks as a form of therapy. We’d love to work regularly with physicians to do the same.”