Interacting with nature can be a great way to enhance your mental health and psychological state — and there’s science that backs that up. NPR’s Life Kit recently spoke with Dr. Qing Li, a professor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo and the president of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine, who explained how simply heading into a forest can help boost your happiness and well-being.
“Forest bathing,” or shinrin-yoku, is a Japanese term that emerged in the 1980s. Its practitioners say benefits include feeling less stress, boosting your immune system, and even increasing your levels of anti-cancer proteins.
“We have a biological need to connect with nature,” Li said. “The longer is the better. The longer is more effect.”
According to Li, many of the benefits from forest bathing are acquired by inhaling the chemicals that trees release into the air. We all know that trees clean the air by sucking up carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. But apparently, they also release chemicals called phytoncides, which are “antimicrobial allelochemic volatile organic compounds emitted by plants to defend against decay or attack by herbivores.”
When inhaled, Li said, phytoncides reduce stress levels in humans and increase levels of anti-cancer proteins. He has even carried out scientific experiments to back this assertion up, using concentrated essential oils from Japanese cypress trees and showing that the test subjects who received the oils experienced more health benefits than those who did not.
This is not the only study that has concluded that spending time outdoors can help boost your mental and physical health. A 2020 study conducted in Singapore found that people who participate in community gardening reported significantly higher levels of subjective well-being, as measured by perceived stress; well-being; self-esteem; optimism; and openness.
One content creator recently posited that getting outdoors and listening to birdsong can also reduce your stress levels, as birdsong is “like a primal sign that there are no predators around, so your nervous system starts to relax.” That theory has also been backed up by studies.
Whatever your method, the message from the experts is clear: Getting outside and into nature is good for you.
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