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Forest Bathing: The Healing Power of Shinrin-Yoku

Updated: Jan 5

Since it is holiday time, our recommendation for a truly alternative holiday is a breathing experience, and not only that. Our proposal is called Shinrin-Yoku or forest bathing.  To tell you more about it, we involved Martina Montinaro, who not only deals with sustainability but, having had this experience herself, really has something to tell us.

"Shinrin-yoku" or Forest Bathing: take a guess 

The art of practicing Forest Bathing is incredibly helpful in regaining the well-being lost in everyday life by communing with nature in a holistic sensory experience. In fact, regularly practicing Forest Bathing helps mitigate the negative impact of increasing urbanization on human well-being: everyday life constantly leads us into a deficit of nature, relaxation, and slowness. On the other hand, forests give us all this and more. We just need to have the foresight to 'return' to the land. But let's see what it is all about.

What is Forest Bathing or Forest Therapy

'Shinrin-yoku' can literally be translated as 'Forest Bath.' It is a Japanese practice of immersing oneself in a forest environment to benefit from its healing properties. Going beyond the idea of a simple, albeit beneficial, walk among the trees, Shinrin-yoku is a sensory and spiritual immersion in a natural environment, where every sense is involved in exploring and appreciating the surroundings.

The aim is to connect with nature by engaging all five senses: it is an invitation to smell the earth, listen to the sounds of nature, touch the bark of trees to perceive their structure, taste the fresh air, and observe the colorful spectacle that the forest offers.

Origin: where Forest Bathing comes from

Shinrin-yoku originated in Japan in the 1980s in response to the need to counter chronic stress and fatigue caused by a hectic pace of life. The Japanese government introduced the practice as part of a national public health program after recognizing the benefits that nature has on the human mind and body. Since then, it has become an important pillar of preventive medicine in the country. In fact, today Japan recognizes the practice as part of the national health service, considering it a form of preventive medicine. Its transition to clinical and rehabilitative medicine is imminent.

Since its inception, Shinrin-yoku has gained popularity worldwide, evolving into a trend in wellness practices. People of all ages and physical conditions are rediscovering the rejuvenating power of Forest Baths.

In an era marked by constant digital connections and increasing urbanization, seeking refuge in the tranquility of nature provides necessary and beneficial support for both mental and physical health.

The discipline now known as forest medicine is gaining more scientific recognition, thanks in part to initial results demonstrating its effectiveness in promoting psychophysical balance. The Forest Therapy Society specifically refers to it as a new medical science capable of making us more active, relaxed, and healthy, thereby reducing the risk of developing diseases. Forest baths have been proven to offer a range of beneficial effects on human health and well-being.

Benefits for Mental and Physical Health

Forest bathing: physical and mental benefits

The benefits of Shinrin-yoku are extensive and documented by scientific studies.

On a mental level, the practice helps reduce stress, anxiety, and improves mood and concentration.

On a physical level, spending time in nature can also lower blood pressure, improve heart and respiratory function, strengthen the immune system, and speed up recovery from illness. Forest bathing has also been shown to increase the production of NK cells, which play an important role in fighting infection and cancer.

The CNR Research Project

The positive effects of forest immersion have also been studied in Italy for several years: the Forest Therapy project initiated by the National Research Council (CNR) is demonstrating the impact of the repeated practice of Forest Bathing on disease prevention.

The publication 'Forest Therapy,’ published by the CNR in collaboration with the Italian Alpine Club, explores the science behind Shinrin-yoku, providing a valuable approach to understanding how contact with nature positively influences human health.

The research emphasizes the need to integrate exposure to the natural environment into people's prevention and treatment strategies, highlighting the role that forest ecosystems can play in promoting physical and psychological health.

The 'Forest Therapy' study

The study 'Forest Therapy' stands as a reference text, systematizing the scientific knowledge accumulated over 30 years of research on the effects of forest environments on the mental and physiological health of visitors.

The publication examines the significance of large forests for human life, not only in terms of health but also for their role in climate and disease. Additionally, it proposes scientific methods and innovative approaches with the aim of standardizing forest therapy practices.

For instance, one phase of the research involved using an 'electronic nose' to measure the concentration of volatile organic compounds released by plants in different forests, seasons, and times of day.

To obtain an objective picture and reliable results, the project was conducted through Forest Therapy sessions led by professional psychologists following specific protocols. The obtained results are surprising and, in some cases, surpass similar international studies. According to studies reported by the CNR, forest therapy can modify the biochemical composition of our bodies, reducing the levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and increasing the production of hormones associated with well-being, such as endorphins.

Moreover, forest environments are rich in phytoncides, volatile organic substances emitted by plants, which have been shown to boost the human immune system.

The analysis also indicates that forest therapy contributes to a decrease in symptoms related to stress and anxiety. Being in natural environments promotes a reduction in the activity of the cerebral amygdala, associated with the emotional response of fear and anxiety, and encourages the activation of brain areas related to relaxation and reflection.

It was also found that regular practice of forest therapy can lower blood pressure, improve heart rate variability, and reduce the risks associated with cardiovascular disease. Additionally, contact with the microbial diversity found in forests appears to strengthen our microbiome, essential for a healthy digestive system and an effective immune response.

The CNR study paves the way for a desirable future recognition of this therapy as a medical practice. In fact, it is claimed that integrating this practice into the healthcare system could represent an evolution in the treatment of people's psychophysical well-being. In a future where health is increasingly understood in a holistic and preventive way, forest therapy could become a recommended habit not only for recovering from specific pathologies but also as a daily practice for health maintenance and disease prevention.

Therefore, recognizing the importance of research and innovation in the field of environmental medicine is essential, opening up new avenues for human well-being inspired by nature and supported by sound science.

The project is also developing with the creation of Forest Therapy Stations, located in mountain huts and trails in both the Apennines and the Alps, to provide widespread and professional service. These stations will also be available for patients referred by the National Health Service, promoting integration between nature and complementary medicine.

How to Organise a Forest Bath

Forest Bathing can be practiced at different levels. It can certainly be practiced individually or independently in small groups.

However, for those who wish to be guided, especially in the initial phase of approaching the practice, there are associations and practitioners who specialize in this activity. These organizations offer guided excursions during which Shinrin-yoku experts help participants tune into their surroundings, guiding their breathing, activities, and meditation. In Italy and many other countries, dedicated routes are being developed in national parks, nature reserves, and forests where it is possible to practice Forest Bathing safely and with the right attitude.

There will be an increasing need for professional forest bathing sessions in the future, also dedicated to groups of people from different backgrounds. For this reason, the NRC publication devotes a section to protocols for conducting forest therapy sessions. The protocols developed by the researchers suggest optimal lengths of stay in the forest, recommended activities, and frequency of sessions, all designed to maximize the benefits of therapy. The approach is holistic and considers the individual as a whole, but in each case, it is advisable to tailor the experience to each individual's needs.

Those who have tried forest bathing have said...

A Forest Bathing Experience in Abruzzo - Italy

This summer, during my holiday in Abruzzo, I had my first 'Forest Bath.' It was amazing, a sort of baptism into nature. 

Describing the perceived beneficial effects is challenging. I felt an immediate sense of peace and a rebirth of mental and physical energy after just the first session. 

My experience was led by a certified guide who was very skilled in immersing us right from the start in an atmosphere of absolute communion with nature and the other participants. I felt a genuine 'return' to nature and the essentials, experiencing feelings of rediscovered serenity and inner peace.

Discovering the Wood Wide Web

Our guide used both a meditative and scientific approach during the experience, occasionally providing us with information to help connect us with the environment around us. 

What impressed me most was discovering the existence of what is called the Wood Wide Web: an underground communication network between trees and plants that develops through mycorrhizal fungi. This intricate system allows plants to share resources and information, creating an interconnected and resilient ecosystem.

It is truly fascinating to think that nature may have developed a complex mutual aid network between trees that acts invisibly but effectively for the survival of the trees themselves. The awareness of the existence of the Wood Wide Web, coupled with the possibility of making contact with it during the experience, greatly enhances the sense of wonder of Forest Bathing and incredibly amplifies the perception of connection with nature.

 Feeling part of such a complex and harmonious system, combined with reflection by analogy on the power of human connections, can greatly expand one's perception, intensifying the psychological benefits and creating a lasting sense of wonder and awe.

The contribution of Forest Bathing to the health of the planet

In addition to all this, the practice of Shinrin-yoku helps recognize the intrinsic value of forest ecosystems, emphasizing the importance of preserving these environments not only for human health but also for the well-being of the entire planet. Forest baths are not only beneficial for human beings but also aid in saving the planet. A forest that is frequented is a forest that is cared for, protected, enhanced—in other words, returned to the community. And it becomes easier for those who live in it to recognize its hydro-geological, biodiversity reserve, and climate regulation functions. Sustainable forest management becomes fundamental for humans, other living beings, and the planet.

"Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life." 

Herman Hesse

A forest... in your office

Thanking Martina for this article, we ask ourselves: what to do while waiting to go on holiday in a forest? There is a much more urban alternative: go and breathe in a Pure Air Zone. Yes, because Pure Air Zones are a bit like an 'indoor forest'. Thanks to the power of good bacteria and enzymes, entering a Pure Air Zone means accessing a bubble of air purified of contaminants that are in the air. It's exactly like entering a small forest. To find Pure Air Zones, simply download the Pure Air Zone App and click on the map in the app's home page. Happy Holidays!

For more details on the practice of Shinrin-yoku and associated research, please consult the book 'Forest Therapy' published by the CNR, which provides a scientific and practical overview of this topic:



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