Forest therapy: why a walk in the woods may be just what the doctor ordered

forest therapyOnce again, scientists are proving what indigenous people and nature lovers have always known:  being outdoors is healthy!   Specifically, new research shows that being surrounded by a forest environment, or “forest therapy” can improve your health.  And may even help fight cancer.

In Japan, forest therapy, or shinrin-yoku, is standard preventative medicine.  It’s not about being alone in the wilderness or extreme outdoor sports, it’s about allowing your body and psyche to hang out in the peace of the woods.

The term shinrin-yoku was coined by the Japanese government in 1982, but is based on ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices.  [There’s that ancient wisdom again!]  It’s also known as “forest bathing.”

It was just a few decades ago when people made fun of “tree huggers”  — as a former “tree hugger” myself, I now feel thoroughly vindicated!

The research on “forest therapy”

Japanese researchers studying “forest therapy,” have found measurable health benefits:

  • Lower cortisol
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Reduced stress
  • Lower blood sugar
  • Improved concentration
  • Diminished pain
  • Improved immunity
  • Less depression and hostility
  • Increased vitality
  • Better concentration
  • Increased creativity 

Three days of hiking and camping in the wilderness increased creativity scores by 50% according to a joint study by the University of Kansas and University of Utah.

U.S. research on children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder [ADHD] found that children experienced substantially improved concentration after a 20-minute walk in a city park as compared to a 20-minute walk in downtown or residential settings.  The researchers concluded the positive results were comparable to the effects of Ritalin.

This is yet more incentive for parents to get children outdoors and away from electronic screens.

Even just gazing at forest scenery for 20 minutes reduces salivary cortisol levels by 13.4%.   Cortisol is the “stress hormone” that over prolonged periods can suppress the immune system, along with other negative effects.

In an electronic world, we need the break.  Some statistics reveal that the average American spends at least 8 hours a day looking at some sort of electronic screen.  Trying to relax by watching TV actually doesn’t relax us.

Japan has 48 official Forest Therapy Trails with scientifically documented relaxing effects.  It intends to designate a total of 100 Forest Therapy Sites within the next 10 years.

Visitors may expect to have before and after blood pressure stats taken as part of the effort to provide more data to support the project. The government has funded about $4 million in forest-bathing research since 2004.

Results are so pronounced that some Japanese companies are starting to include forest therapy in employee health care benefits.  Also, wellness programs with free check-ups are available inside Japanese forests.

Drinking tea is part of the program.  The idea is to let nature enter your body through all five senses.  What a very lovely idea!

Forest therapy increases our natural killer cells

Natural killer immune cells [NK cells] are a type of white blood cell which sends self-destruct messages to tumors and virus-infected cells, including cancer cells.  It’s known that stress, aging and pesticides can reduce our NK count.

Forest therapy has been found to increase NK cells, which can be reliably measured in a lab and are, therefore, an excellent research subject.

Researchers found that spending three days in the forest increases NK activity by 40% and that the benefit can last up to one month.

Are the benefits of forest therapy based on aromatherapy?

One of the theories as to why forest therapy works is that trees give off scents of volatile oils, known as phytoncides.

In studies where subjects were exposed to vaporized stem oil from a common cypress tree, they had a 20% increase in their NK cells during their three night stay in a hotel.  Subjects not exposed to the smell saw no change.

NK cells in a petri dish also saw an increase in the presence of aromatic cypress molecules.

Urban walking trips don’t change NK cell levels.

Japanese researchers theorize that house plants may give off phytoncides too.  I again feel vindicated because I have always lived by the motto: you can never have too many house plants.

Why forest therapy works

A new study from UK researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland found that the brain enters a meditative state when one is in “green space.”

The Japanese father of forest therapy is Miyazaki, a physiological anthropologist and vice director of Chiba University’s Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences.  He believes that because humans evolved in nature, it’s where we are most comfortable, even if we don’t always know it.  Good call.

“Our physiological functions are still adapted to it.  During everyday life, a feeling of comfort can be achieved if our rhythms are synchronized with those of the environment.”

Muskogee-Creek Elder Bear Heart shared a Native American teaching about trees in The Wind Is My Mother:

“It’s amazing what you feel from a tree.  It can give us energy.  When we take long hikes in wooded areas, we often put our fingertips on the ends of the cedar or the pine needles.  Just standing there touching them, you’re going to feel energy come to you.  Trees are emitting energy all the time.   Every needle of the tree, every leaf, is trying to make the atmosphere breathable for us.  That’s why my people have great respect for trees.  The trees are our relatives — we call them ‘tall standing brothers.’ “

And the benefits extend to water, too.  Members of Bear Heart’s tribe would hang a bucket of water in a tree for a day to purify it, draping cheesecloth over it to keep debris from falling in.

“You can take the water to any lab and have it tested – there will be no bacteria in it.  Most of my tribe always hung their water buckets on a tree limb outside.  They might not have known exactly what it did, but they knew that it helped.”

What can you do when you can’t regularly walk in the woods?

  • Spend some time every day outside
  • If you take a vacation, don’t go to a city — go to a natural area
  • Try to get into nature at least one weekend a month
  • Visit a park weekly
  • Garden
  • On city walks, walk under trees, not across fields
  • Go to quiet places
  • Spend time near water [it has healing powers, too]
  • Go camping/rent a cabin in the woods for a weekend  [two nights/three days is optimal]
  • Cedar and cypress trees have been found to be especially beneficial
  • Plant trees!
  • Use aromatherapy
  • Fill your house with house plants 

Take advantage of the amazing healing powers of forests and the natural world and support their protection.

[quote]”We need to save those Elders who cannot speak for themselves — the trees.” –Haida Gwaii, Traditional Circle of Elders[/quote]

Sources for this post include:


“Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me In The Morning”


Molly Larkin

Molly Larkin is the co-author of the international best-seller "The Wind Is My Mother; The Life and Teachings of a Native American Shaman”  and other books on health. She is passionate about helping people live life to their fullest potential through her classes, healing practice and blog at www.MollyLarkin.com

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