Inside The Health Benefits Of Forest Bathing

People are always looking for new and inexpensive ways to practice better self-care or enrich their lives. From digging into the wellness trends set to take over 2023 to exploring ways to turn yourself into a morning person, you may also be seeking tips and tricks to transform your daily existence. If your goals include better physical and mental health, forest bathing should definitely be on your list.

Don't let the name throw you off. Known in Japan as shinrin-yoku, forest bathing doesn't involve submerging yourself in water. Rather, it's a form of ecotherapy practiced by spending time in natural environments (via National Geographic).

"In Japanese, shinrin means 'forest' and yoku means 'bath.' So shinrin-yoku means 'bathing in the forest atmosphere,' or taking in the forest through our senses," Dr. Qing Li, president of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine, explains to The Zoe Report. "This is not exercise, hiking, or jogging. It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. By opening our senses, [forest bathing] bridges the gap between us and the natural world."

To feel the full effects of forest bathing, Dr. Li suggests soaking in this leafy environment for at least 20 minutes — though two hours would be ideal. But what exactly are the effects of this ecotherapy, and what advantages does this practice offer? If you're interested in forest bathing, here's everything you need to know about its purported health benefits.

Forest bathing lowers stress and blood pressure

Many of us feel the urge to reconnect with nature when our day-to-day life has been relentlessly stressful. There's just something about being out in the wilderness that helps some people relax. So it's no wonder that forest bathing is said to ease stress and anxiety. But this isn't just an anecdotal experience. One study in the academic journal Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine found that forest bathing was tied to "positive physiological effects, such as blood pressure reduction, ... as well as psychological effects of alleviating depression and improving mental health."

And now is the perfect time to make the most of this forest bathing benefit, as stress and mental health issues are on the rise worldwide. A recent poll conducted on behalf of the American Psychological Association reports that, despite an increasingly positive post-pandemic outlook, the pressure from COVID-19 has left many people struggling with uncertainty and anxiety. According to this survey, almost one-third of adults feel so stressed by pandemic conditions that they struggle to make basic, everyday decisions.

If this sounds like you, consider stepping away from your usual routine to take a few minutes in nature. You can even try forest bathing in a local park, so long as you're able to immerse yourself in the quiet presence of trees.

Less stress equals better sleep

Modern stressors can also take their toll on your beauty sleep. "Today, many of us operate in a chronic low intensity 'fight or flight' environment on a daily basis," nature guide Jane Dobson tells Saatva. "This level of daily stress results in all sorts of health ailments, such as physical disease, anxiety, depression, inability to focus, and insomnia." Insomnia can be particularly dangerous, as it can contribute to serious health issues like asthma, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and more (per Healthline).

In contrast to this fight or flight response, forest bathing promotes better sleep — and better health overall — by combating insomnia on a basic physiological level. "Nature immersion activates our parasympathetic nervous system," Dobson says. "This is commonly referred to as 'rest and digest,' or the relaxation response."

Forest bathing can also be used as a perfect opportunity for meditation and mindfulness, which are common techniques for improved sleep. "Forest bathing is about opening up all five senses to fully absorb the nature around you," psychologist and meditation expert Nina Smiley, Ph.D., tells Byrdie. "I also call forest bathing 'mindfulness in nature.' During this meditative walk, we invite nature to permeate all five senses, and it brings an overall sense of well-being and calm."

Tree emissions can boost your immunity

You may recall from a high school biology class that white blood cells work as part of your immune system to fight off infections and other biological invaders. And as it turns out, forest bathing can give these internal warriors a boost.

Trees release chemicals called phytoncides, which are antimicrobial compounds a bit like essential oils. According to a study in the International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology, exposure to these phytoncides significantly increases the activity of a certain kind of blood cells known as natural killer (NK) cells. That may not sound very positive, but actually, NK cells are important players in our immune systems. They are renowned for their ability to kill cells in tumors or that have been infected by viruses (per the National Cancer Institute).

Another study, published in the journal Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, suggests that these effects can last for more than thirty days. So scheduling a monthly forest bath could be a huge boon to your health and immunity.

Forest bathing can improve your focus

Do you ever feel burnt out by the constant barrage of information in today's busy world? We're continuously exposed to news reports, social media notifications, and a never-ending well of creative content. Unfortunately, this can wreak havoc on our ability to focus on a single task or train of thought. But forest bathing may help.

That exhausted, overwhelmed feeling of information overload — sometimes referred to as "directed attention fatigue" or DAF — occurs because the natural data filters in your brain get overused while trying to weed out distractions (via Dr. Susan Jamieson Integrative Medical Practice). While this is a temporary condition like physical exhaustion, it can become a regular occurrence if you don't give your brain a break.

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation cites forest bathing as one way to soothe DAF, as time spent in nature gives the cognition portion of your brain a chance to relax and reset. The site also points out that there's a link between DAF and some attention disorders like ADHD, so forest bathing may offer one cheap, holistic way to improve focus and support treatment for these conditions.

Time outdoors means more vitamin D

If you want to connect with the forest, that necessarily means spending some time outside. And even if you choose to indulge in forest bathing on a cloudy day, you'll still have the opportunity to soak up some valuable vitamin D. Or, more accurately, you can get the UVB radiation that empowers your skin to synthesize vitamin D itself (via The New York Times).

Why does this matter? Vitamin D is critical to various functions in your body, from building bone and reducing inflammation to inhibiting the growth of cancer cells (per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.) And while you can certainly consume most of your necessary vitamin D through a healthy diet, our bodies are hardwired to synthesize it in reaction to our environment, as well.

Vitamin D — or the lack thereof — can also impact your mood. As such, Dr. Axe suggests that forest bathing in the great outdoors may also be one way to counteract seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which can contribute to depression and low moods when your vitamin D levels get too low.

Of course, none of this means that you need to complement your forest bathing with a tanning session. As always, sunlight should be received in moderation and with a healthy dose of sunscreen. Experts explain that SPF should be worn daily to defend against issues like skin cancer and premature aging. So if you're planning to try some restorative forest bathing, don't forget to slather on the sunblock first.