It’s become nearly impossible to espouse the physical and mental healing powers of nature without sounding a tad woo-woo. Cities are our lives now, with urban areas serving as home to 84 percent of Americans . In the brief history of our country, we’ve lost touch with nature and, perhaps more problematic, we’ve lost the space needed for nature to exist in our everyday lives. In 1790 the average number of Americans living in a square mile was 4.5 . By 1950, that number had grown nearly tenfold to 42.6. Today, it stands at a claustrophobic 92.9 . Now that nature isn’t the norm, we don’t prioritize let alone validate the human need for connection with trees, mountains, water, and sand – we prioritize the convenience of modernity. Most of us dismiss touching a tree as a way to reconnect with and heal ourselves, this despite our deep history as naturephiles and mounting evidence that nature is an effective tool to combat cancer, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, ADHD, and stress.
“It’s in our DNA,” says Brooke Moran, professor of recreation and outdoor education, Western Colorado University. “There are studies from all over the world that show the outdoors equals health.” Studies vary about how much time it takes to reap the benefits, but with only 15 minutes spent in nature, Moran says there’s a reduction in cortisol – the body’s main stress hormone.
“The longer you stay out, of course, the better the benefits. Being in nature allows us to focus our senses. We’re not looking at screens or hearing all the man-made noises in the world.”
Moran points to studies that show the ways nature can positively impact our health, including improving short-term memory by 20 percent, increasing levels of Vitamin D , improving sleep quality , decreasing anxiety and depression , lowering blood sugar in diabetics , reducing inflammation , and even increasing creativity .
“It literally goes on and on and on,” she says. How does nature provide these types of human therapies?
“I see nature as healing because of the conductive support the earth provides the human body,” says Laura Koniver, MD, author of The Earth Prescription .
“The earth pulses out an electromagnetic frequency – known as the Schumann Resonance – and the human body is fully conductive. Every single cell in our entire body becomes immediately grounded whenever we physically touch the earth directly. Twenty years of medical studies on grounding show that when we are connected to the earth’s energy, our bodies naturally go into a healing state. Everything from our brain waves to our muscle tension to our heartbeat responds in a healing way to grounding.”
Perhaps we should touch a tree, stat. ‘Bathing’ in forests and mountains
Mountains and forests are life-giving resources. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that mountains host 25 percent of the biodiversity on earth, 28 percent of the earth’s forests, and provide between 60-80 percent of the world’s fresh water. Higher altitudes also have been found to cause weight loss without the need for exercise and reduce the risk of developing heart disease .
“We can learn that forests are an amazing resource,” says Dr. Qing Li, author Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness . “They give us everything we rely on in order to exist. They produce oxygen, cleanse the air we breathe, and purify our water. They stop flooding rivers and streams and the erosion of mountains and hills. They provide us with food, clothing, and shelter, and with the materials we need for furniture and tools. In addition to this, forests have always helped us to heal our wounds and to cure our diseases.”
In response, Japanese researchers developed the concept of forest bathing in an effort to prevent the effects of lifestyle-related diseases. According to Dr. Li, shinrin in Japanese means “forest” and yoku means “bath”, thus shinrin-yoku means bathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through our senses.
“This is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging,” he says. “It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our sense of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.”
Li says people can enjoy shinrin-yoku through five senses: Sight
Gazing upon green color and lush forest landscapes Smell
Inhaling the scents and fragrance of wooded areas Hearing
Listening to forest sounds and birds’ songs Touch
Touching trees, putting your whole body in the forest atmosphere Taste
Eating foods from the forest, tasting the fresh air in forest
“It is a total effect of the five senses,” he says. “However, the sense of smell is the key elements of forest bathing because of the effect of phytoncides [a substance released by plants and trees, generally meaning the aroma of the forest]. As we walk slowly through the forest, seeing, listening, smelling, tasting, and touching, we bring our rhythms into step with nature,” says Dr. Li.
All you need is access to a forest and an open mind. Forest bathing isn’t a one-size-fits all solution, Dr. Li says. For some, healing will come from the sound of water flowing over pebbles in a stream or squirrels chattering to each other in the branches. For others, it’s the scent of pine needles or the sight of the forest bursting into green at the beginning of spring.
“You also can reconnect with nature simply by the act of being there,” he says. “And yes – you should leave technology behind.” The healing effects of water and sand
Unlike the majestic, tree- and rock-covered terrain of mountains and forests, oceans and deserts offer something even scarcer to city dwellers – vast, open spaces. Deserts provide watercolor skies and sand-painted horizons seemingly without end, imbued with peculiar-looking plants, trees, and wildlife. Oceans, which produce at least half of earth’s oxygen , appear limitless: the salt-water air, the sound of waves and tides rolling with the rhythms […]