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The Healing Magic of Forest Bathing

Once a month is enough to sustain higher levels of immunity, and the intention of healing magnifies the effects.

Spring Lichen, New Hampshire Woods by Michelle Morin

It takes little effort to reap the benefits of being in nature. In modern life, we visit the doctor when we’re sick and get medication to heal some specific ailment. Nature works differently. Instead of healing a specific ailment, connection to nature increases our general sense of well-being and bolsters our immunity, so we’re not as susceptible to getting sick.

Research around the benefits of forest bathing has been focused on two components—phytoncides and negative ions. Add soil microbes to the mix to create a perfect solution. Phytoncides are produced to help plants and trees protect themselves from harmful insects and germs; in the process, they help us in similar ways. Negative ions are tiny molecules produced in nature that offer mood-enhancing benefits. When we forest bathe, we breathe in phytoncides, negative ions, and soil bacteria; together, they provide health benefits. These tiny particles work wonders even when we’re not aware of them, but walking in the woods even once a month boosts immunity. 

Trust that nature is working her way through you, making you healthier with each breath you take. Being in nature is like being at the most advanced spa in the world. A spa might have a negative ion generator or aromatherapy with some beneficial phytoncides to breathe in, but the natural world offers it all. The best medicine comes from immersing yourself in the whole perfectly designed system of the forest. 

Trust that nature is working her way through you, making you healthier with each breath you take.

Phytoncides 

When you take a deep breath in the forest, you may be inhaling up to one hundred different types of phytoncides. The term phytoncides was first used by B. P. Tokin around 1930. It is derived from the Greek words phyto, meaning “plant,” and cide, meaning “extermination,” and refers to the fact that plants emit special substances to protect themselves from harmful things in the environment. Trees emit phytoncides, basically plant essential oils, to protect themselves; and in the mutually beneficial relationship we have with trees, the phytoncides are beneficial to us as well. We’ve evolved alongside trees, so what protects them will also protect us. 

Alpha-pinene and beta-pinene are two phytoncides found in the forest—released from trees when the temperature rises above 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The higher the temperature, the greater the chemical reaction and the more the fragrance will enter your nose and mouth. Various studies have suggested that inhaling these fragrances lowers blood pressure and increases our sense of comfort and being at ease. Phytoncides also increase our bodies’ natural killer (NK) cell activity, which is part of the immune system’s way of fighting off cancer. The immune boost from just 15 minutes in the forest lasts up to 30 days, suggesting that a forest bath once a month is enough to sustain higher levels of immunity.

Negative Ions 

Negative ions are invisible molecules found in the forest, the mountains, and near water, such as oceans and waterfalls. When you visit these places, you absorb the negative ions into your bloodstream, which produces a biochemical reaction that boosts production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that’s responsible for alleviating depression and relieving stress. The negatively ionized air promotes alpha brain waves and increases brain wave amplitude, creating an overall clear and calming effect. In other words, exposure to negative ions leads to good vibes. 

Soil Bacteria 

Trees put down roots into the soil, where an entire community of microorganisms, called the microbiome, supports their growth and nutrient and water uptake. The billions of life-forms that live in the soil transform soil nutrients to make the soil valuable to the trees, and to us. The healing powers of nature are abundant in the forest air and floor. A cure to distress can also be found in a handful of forest soil. Exposure to the soil bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae can improve our immune health and emotional health by acting as a natural antidepressant that increases the release and metabolism of serotonin in parts of the brain that control cognitive function. Today we oversterilize everything; as a result, we suffer from an abundance of health issues, from inflammation to allergies. Studies suggest that when we are exposed to soil microbes by playing in the soil, we benefit in unexpected and healthful ways. —Julia Plevin

Reprinted with permission from The Healing Magic of Forest Bathing, by Julia Plevin, copyright 2019. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.