Forest Bathing #5 How the forest heals us and keeps us healthy!

Picture of Richard Staudner
Richard Staudner

The Optimizer

I don't think we are too surprised that nature is good for us, but to have it scientifically confirmed and thus make it watertight is something else again. These results can motivate us to practice forest bathing more intensively. But they also serve decision makers in the medical field and also politics to prescribe or at least recommend the use of guided forest bathing in case of illness.

Just like it is standard in Japan. This would be another chance, in addition to good sleep, a healthy diet and sufficient exercise, to positively influence our health without medication.

Does forest bathing have a place in medicine or does it remain "medicine"? Let's take a look at what effect has been scientifically proven around forest bathing and how it actually unfolds its health-promoting effect.

Holistic forest medicine

It is difficult to determine exactly what the effect of forest bathing is based on. So many influences affect people when they spend time in nature. It is certainly an interaction of the various properties of the forest and especially the absence of various stressors of everyday life. Besides the smells, probably especially the light plays and the visual stimulation and in the forest is a fundamental element. (Antonelli et al., 2020)

Of course, we must not forget that exercise has a strong positive effect on our body and we at least walk in the forest.

So many individual elements work in the forest. Light and colors influence our psyche. Komorebi is what the Japanese call the play of light when the sun shines through the leaves (Miyazaki, 2018).
The colors blue and green can address deep-seated needs for safety, nourishment, survival, and thus induce relaxation. This is evolutionarily anchored in us. Our ancestors have always settled near a river or forest. So there was drinking water or firewood and timber.

Even special shapes in branches and leaves, called fractals, can stimulate our central nervous system.

Sounds also make up the forest: rustling leaves in the wind, singing birds or water splashing can contribute to our relaxation. I believe that, evolutionarily speaking, we are more attuned to the sounds of the forest than to the acoustic overload of the city. Often, it is also the silence and lack of hectic noises that make the forest peaceful. Nature is still in our genes evolutionarily, you might say. It's stored in our DNA and probably the reason why we can relax so quickly in the forest.

The unique climate in the forest with cool temperature, especially clean air and higher humidity is a signal to our body. Touching wood can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, our relaxation mode, and touching leaves induces subconscious relaxation. (Antonelli et al., 2021; Stier-Jarmer et al., 2021)

Above all, however, it has been shown that perception must also be enjoyed. If certain sensory stimuli, for example a babbling brook, pictures of trees or smells, are positively received, then brain activity, blood pressure and body posture relax. If the participant:s do not find pleasure, then no physical signs of relaxation are seen. (Miyazaki, 2018) I don't think you can force anyone to do forest bathing. The interaction with nature is essential.

The chemistry and pharmacology of the forest

In the forest, there is a very special atmosphere, a special air composition. This is also referred to as BVOCs (Biogenic Volatile Organic Compounds). These are substances of natural origin that evaporate easily. The most important components in the special forest atmosphere are the so-called terpenes. These molecules are produced by various plants, especially conifers. However, the soil, microorganisms, insects, and dead plant material also emit forest substances for protection, communication, and defense (Meneguzzo et al., 2019). We are also familiar with terpenes from essential oils, which are, strictly speaking, highly concentrated fragrances from various plants. (Cho et al., 2017)

Then there are the terpenoids, a subgroup that additionally contains oxygen atoms. Plants produce these substances for various reasons. They can serve as protection against predators or pathogens. Some substances are permanently released by plants and others only in stressful situations. (Kim et al., 2020) Each plant has its own profile of volatile substances, as can be seen in the different odors. Plants can also use these substances to communicate within their species. (Hansen et al., 2017)

It is precisely these substances that are now associated with the beneficial effects of forest bathing. They have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and neuroprotective effects (Stier- Jarmer et al., 2021), especially on the respiratory system (Antonelli et al., 2020). They increase immune NK cells and reduce adrenaline, increase parasympathetic nervous system activity, and decrease heart rate (Hansen et al., 2017). They are relaxing, calming, and anxiety-relieving (Antonelli et al., 2021) and are thought to improve brain performance, mental fatigue, and mood (Antonelli et al., 2020). That almost sounds like magic....

How does it work?

We don't yet know exactly how inhaling a few fragrances achieves these positive effects, but some possible mechanisms can already be identified from animal studies and laboratory tests (Kim et al., 2020). This is where it gets a little nerdy, let's look at some mechanisms of action.

Anti-inflammatoryExperiments show that terpenes can reduce inflammatory substances, such as interleukins, TNF-alpha or COX-2, which also influence neuroinflammation and could therefore also have an effect on Alzheimer's disease. Terpenes influence the production of inflammatory mediators in the body. They also act on cannabinoid II receptors. Alpha-pinene from conifers has a particularly anti-inflammatory effect (Cho et al., 2017).

Antioxidant: They lower the activity of enzymes that generate oxidative species and also directly protect against the oxidative damage that can be caused by such species. In experiments, they also help against mitochondrial dysfunction, and thus can also lower the amount of radicals produced. They also reduce the peroxidation of lipids.

The substances are suspected of stimulating autophagy and thus reducing tumor growth. They can also intervene in the cell cycle and stop the ongoing process of proliferation, this also contributes to the antitumor effect, but in excess can also have a counterproductive effect, which is why essential oils and similar fragrance concentrates should be handled carefully. In the forest, however, the concentration of the substances is not so high that a counterproductive effect is to be expected. Studies even suggest that the antitumor effect can be used synergistically with chemotherapy, enhancing its effect (Cho et al., 2017).

All in all, however, we still lack clinical studies, especially with humans, to understand exact modes of action. (Cho et al., 2017)

Not all forests are the same

As mentioned above, each plant has its own profile of volatiles. Different terpenes also act differently, so the question naturally arises: which forest is best? Are there lung forests, nerve forests or heart forests? Unfortunately, we don't know enough to answer that yet (Andersen et al., 2021). A small study in Italy, for example, reports higher emission levels from conifers compared to beech, but notes that no general conclusions can yet be drawn from these results (Meneguzzo et al., 2019).

Still other studies show that some deciduous trees have much higher emissions of terpenes than conifers (Chen et al., 2019). As mentioned earlier, other sensory impressions play a role in addition to odors, of course. Color, shape, light conditions, and sounds also differ in different forests.

Initial experiments also show that different trees have an effect on different people. For example, oak has a stronger anxiety-relieving effect on women than on men, birch has the same effect on both, and maple has hardly any effect on either (Antonelli et al., 2021).

The release of substances in nature apparently also follows a day-night rhythm, which can be used. In the morning, the values increase, mainly due to the forest substances from the earth, in the morning the concentrations then decrease again. In the early afternoon they reach their maximum values and then drop again to a minimum in the late afternoon. Cloudless and windless days are particularly suitable for forest bathing, as here the air is not mixed as quickly and the concentration of BVOCs can increase. (Antonelli et al., 2021; Chen et al., 2019; Meneguzzo et al., 2019; Stier-Jarmer et al., 2021) Especially in summer, light conditions and high temperatures are positive for the physiological effects of forest bathing (Andersen et al., 2021). However, in spring when trees are in bloom and sprouting fresh leaves, the content of forest substances in the atmosphere can also increase (Chen et al., 2019).


I think the results speak for themselves: forest bathing has tremendous potential. One that we may not have taken seriously enough yet because it is, after all, free and freely available. But what if forest bathing is a powerful preventive medicine? Is accessible to almost everyone in Austria and doesn't really have side effects? Can it really be that simple? Even though it needs more scientific research and of course practical experience, I think it really is that simple. Which forests are particularly good for us, what is best to do in the forest, how often and how long we should spend time in them, is not so easy to define. But we should be pragmatic with all this valuable information. In the end it is quite simple: Go into the forest and be curious! You will feel what it does in you!

Woody greetings

Richard Staudner
The Optimizer

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