The Health Benefits of Forest Bathing:

…Is it all just a placebo effect?

Cover image for a blog post. In the top left corner is a green box with text that reads: "The Health Benefits of Forest Bathing", “...Is it all just a placebo effect?”, and "By: Katie Venechuk, IYE Founder & Forest Therapy Guide". A photo in the background shows a person walking on a trail through a lush forest with soft sunlight pouring in through the trees from the top right of the photo. The In Your Element logo is in the top right corner of the image.

We all intuitively know that spending time in nature is good for us.  We go to the beach to relax, feel a mood boost on the first warm day of spring, and take walks outdoors to unwind at the end of a stressful day.

But what are the health benefits, really?  Is it all just a placebo effect, or is there actual data to back up the claims?  And when it comes to the practice of forest bathing, are we tapping into anything extra?  

Read on to discover more!

Is forest bathing a “new age” trend that relies on placebo effect, or is it rooted in actual data?  

Use of the term “forest bathing” here in our western culture is a little unfortunate, at least in my opinion.  While this description of the practice does capture the essence of the experience, it paints a rather edgy picture for many people – giving a first impression that this wellness approach is a rather “new age” or “hippy-dippy” thing.  

As a former environmental engineer with a background of working with very data driven people, this impression is something that I hear all the time.

Arms and hands with light skin, with fingernails painted black and multiple bracelets on each wrist, surround a tree trunk in a hug from behind in the center of the photo. The arm on the left is higher on the trunk. A blue short sleeve over the arm on the right appears behind the trunk. Out of focus in the background, sunlight touches other tree trunks.

When folks who work in the left-brained world of math and science ask me what forest bathing is, I like to ask if they’d mind first telling me what they think forest bathing is.  It’s pretty normal for answers to center around the idea of hugging trees, singing kumbaya in nature, or swimming in forest rivers.  

For a lot of people, the term “forest bathing” sounds far out and the idea of trying it gets dismissed pretty quickly.

While I personally think swimming in a forest river could be wonderfully relaxing, and I’m all for hugging trees – if that’s your thing, the idea that these activities can sum up the whole of what forest bathing offers us is an unfortunate and limited viewpoint.  

While this practice does have an emotional (and at times spiritual) impact for people, it is also a practice that taps into some very specific physiological and mental health benefits that we can all benefit from.  Forest bathing is a wellness approach that has been well-researched for decades and it is far from a new age fad.

Perhaps if forest bathing were called “nature-based relaxation” folks would discover its benefits sooner.  As it is, I hope this blog sheds some light on a bit of the actual data & helps left-brained people feel more open to giving it a try!

…are you unclear what forest bathing is? 

We cover what forest bathing is and how to do it in our blog “Forest Bathing Demystified.”  If you’re looking to learn more about the actual practice, we suggest you pop over and read that blog to get a baseline.  We also share a lot of details on our “What is Forest Bathing” info page, so be sure to check that out too!

Who is studying the health benefits of forest bathing?

There is a laundry list of universities and institutions studying the physiological and mental effects of forest bathing, in locations all over the globe.  If you’re curious, a simple Google search will offer you extensive access to the research and findings from these institutions (in addition to the findings that we include below).

Forest bathing as a formal practice for health and well-being started in Japan in the 1980’s, after initial research showed that spending time nearby certain species of trees could be beneficial for both mental health and certain functions of the human immune system.  Since that time, an entire branch of forest medicine has been established at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School. 

One medical doctor within this branch is now known as the world’s foremost expert in forest medicine: Dr. Qing Li.  Dr. Li has published many papers on his findings, which you can find online.  There are also YouTube videos interviewing him on some of the basics, or you can read his book “Forest Bathing: How Trees Can help you Find Health & Happiness” if you’d like to learn about some of the general studies done and the practice as a whole.

Another leader in the world of forest therapy research is Yoshifumi Miyazaki, who has been studying the effects of forest medicine and forest therapy since 1990.  Miyazaki is a researcher at Chiba University in Japan and has also published papers and a book on the topic of forest bathing. 

Here in the States, we are catching up.  Institutions like Harvard University have published articles about the health effects of forest bathing, and as of 2019, doctors are prescribing time in nature in 34 states as an antidote to anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns. Japan, Denmark, Norway, Scotland, the UK, and many other countries are doing the same. 

Forest therapy is growing as a well-respected approach to health and well-being.  Not just by anecdotal evidence, but by empirical evidence as well. 

Let’s get into it!  

What are four health benefits that you can receive from forest bathing?

1. You can reduce the stress hormone cortisol within your body

Researchers have been testing cortisol levels in forest bathing participants for years, collecting a swab sample of saliva before and after a forest therapy experience and comparing the pre/post walk cortisol data.  According to many studies and decades of data collected in Japan, forest bathing as an approach to time in nature has been shown to “significantly influence cortisol levels on a short term in such a way as to reduce stress.”

2. You can boost your immune system by triggering production & increased activity of a specific white blood cell, called the “natural killer” cell 

Studied both in the field and duplicated in a laboratory setting (using petri dishes), research has shown that exposure to certain bioactive chemicals released from trees (known as phytoncides) can trigger the production of a certain white blood cell that is known as the natural killer cell.  These cells act like a preventative healthcare for us, seeking out cells within the body that are infected by viruses or tumors and killing them.  To learn more about this, one small scale study is referenced here, with additional resources available online and in various books discussing the health benefits of forest bathing.  

3. You can lower your blood pressure

A meta-analysis of various studies and research papers has shown that forest therapy has “beneficial therapeutic effects on urban residents’ physio-psychological health through lowering blood pressure and relieving stress by reducing salivary cortisol concentration.  This finding provides solid evidence of the contribution of forest therapy to urban residents’ health and wellbeing.”

4. You can reduce screen fatigue and relax the optic nerve (the bundle of nerve cells at the back of your eye) by exposing your eyes to nature’s fractal patterns

This is a fascinating one!

A close-up photo of the intricate “veins” on a vivid green leaf.

First…what is a fractal?  A fractal is a recurring and never-ending visual pattern, which may be present at various sizes, scales and levels of complexity.  Examples of fractal patterns in nature are the cellular patterns on the surface of a leaf, the structures of tree bark, and the pattern of crystalized frost that you scrape off your car on a cold morning.  

So, how can looking at fractals help us decrease visual fatigue and improve relaxation?  In short, when we look at a scene, our pupils scan the scene in a fractal pattern.  When we look at fractal patterns, they are easier for our eyes to process than the intense lines of a modern city or what we see in an office all day.  

According to Richard Taylor, a physicist at the University of Oregon, “The eyes first scan the big elements in a scene and then make micro passes in smaller versions of the big scans, and it does this in a mid-range D [referring to a mathematical fractal dimension].”  

Put in simpler terms, he goes on to explain “Our visual system is in some way hardwired to understand fractals.  Stress-reduction is triggered by a physiological resonance that occurs when the fractal structure of the eye matches that of the fractal image being viewed.” 

In nature, we are surrounded by fractals.  The scenes we walk through are easier for our eyes to scan, following fractal patterns that we can process with ease.  This ultimately reduces effort within the optic nerve and helps us to relax.  And since forest bathing is all about slowing down and taking the time to look at the world around us very closely, reducing visual fatigue is something that we fully embrace during forest bathing experiences.  

To learn more, check out this article written by Florence Williams (author of “The Nature Fix”) and Aeon.

What are some other referenced health benefits?

In Dr. Qing Li’s book “Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help you Find Health & Happiness,” he lists the following health benefits that we receive from forest bathing:

  • Reduce blood pressure
  • Lower stress
  • Improve cardiovascular and metabolic health
  • Lower blood-sugar levels
  • Improve concentration and memory
  • Lift depression
  • Improve pain thresholds
  • Improve energy
  • Boost the immune system with an increase in the count of the body’s natural killer cells
  • Increase anticancer protein production
  • Help you lose weight

Do you want to learn more about some of the research behind forest bathing?

Here are a few recommended* books & resources:  

  • “The Nature Fix” by Florence Williams
  • “The Biophilia Effect” by Clemens G Arvay
  • “Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness” by Dr. Qing Li
  • International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine: List of Articles and Books
  • Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs: Articles and Research Archives

Ready to try out forest bathing for yourself?

A photo from a Spring Forest Bathing class with In Your Element Wellness at Ken-O-Sha Park in Grand Rapids, MI. An arm with light skin and a forearm tattoo stretches out from the bottom center of the photo, the open hand holding a bronze singing bowl with the handle of the striker pointing out above the rim. Trees line the background of the image, with a blue sky behind them. In the left foreground, someone is lying on the leaf-covered forest floor.

If you’re curious and ready to give forest bathing a try, join us for year-round guided forest bathing experiences in west Michigan!  Our forest bathing programs have been steadily growing in popularity since 2020 and follow one of the most widely used frameworks for forest therapy in the world.  All of our programs are led by Katie Venechuk, a highly experienced facilitator and one of Michigan’s first ANFT certified forest therapy guides.

Whether you feel called to focus on your personal connection to the world around you or you simply want to explore a different approach to natural stress relief – we’d love to have you with us.  

Check out upcoming opportunities on our Calendar & Booking page!

Is there something that you want to know about forest bathing, or do you have insight to add?  

Drop a comment below!  We’d love to hear from you!

Hope to see you in the forest soon.

*We are in no way affiliated with these books or resources and we do not receive compensation for these recommendations.

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