The forest wants you to relax
We didn’t think that forests could be any more amazing. I mean, we now know from the pioneering research of Suzanne Simard that trees communicate with each other through an underground mycelial network. They can share information about threats and predators. And parent trees can transfer nutrients to children trees. They have this whole community where they are looking out for each other.
The forest is communicating with us too. Although on a more sensorial level. It’s telling us: relax. If you follow our blog, you might remember reading about how giant kelp produces specialized compounds (called secondary metabolites) to help it thrive in the harsh ocean environment. Trees produce compounds called phytoncides (wood essential oils) to protect themselves from harmful insects and pathogens. These phytoncides can help protect us too. Research shows that inhaling phytoncides can reduce stress and enhance the innate immune system’s natural killer cell activity.
This is a strong vote for camping and the Japanese practice of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) guided walks where participants are encouraged to walk slowly and take in the pleasures of nature through all the senses (1). One study from Japan showed that after a three-day weekend in a forest area, people’s natural killer cells increased by 50 percent (2). The effects were surprisingly long lasting too. 30 days later, subjects’ natural killer cells were 25 percent higher than their baseline.
For most of us in the Northern Hemisphere, camping season is long over and autumn is waning into winter. The good news is that research shows that even looking at images of nature can help reduce stress. One of our favourite podcasts, Hidden Brain, has an episode called ‘Our Better Nature: How the Great Outdoors Can improve Your Life.’ Host Shankar Vedantam interviews Professor Ming Kuo who researches the link between nature and human health. In the podcast, Professor Kuo talks about her research findings; if you put people in a lab, show them pictures of nature, and measure their blood pressure and nervous system activity, you can see them becoming more calm. Just the visual is enough. Similarly, if you put someone in a lab and spritz phytoncides in the air, changes occur in natural killer cells (3).
If you’re able to get outside to a local forest or park for a walk, or even stand under a big tree in your neighbourhood and take a deep breath, you just might be reducing stress and strengthening your immune system. And if you can’t get outside, maybe consider changing your computer background to one of those OS nature classics, getting a houseplant or adding a few drops of wood essential oils to your next shower or bath. And remember, the forest wants you to relax. A relaxing thought in it of itself.
2 Li, Qing. “Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function.” Environmental health and preventive medicine vol. 15,1 (2010): 9-17. doi:10.1007/s12199-008-0068-3 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2793341/3 Hidden brain podcast ‘Our Better Nature: How the Great Outdoors Can improve Your Life’ https://www.npr.org/2018/09/10/646413667/our-better-nature-how-the-great-outdoors-can-improve-your-life