That it’s a beautiful life
And it’s a beautiful world
And it’s a beautiful time
To be here, to be here, to be here
-Beautiful Life, by Fisher
I went “forest-bathing” the other day. Okay, it was just a short hike in a nature park, but according to a study published earlier this year and reported on by the New York Times , the more time we spend outdoors, the better our immune systems function. The article basically revisits old news about “phytoncides”, a.k.a. antimicrobial allelochemic volatile organic compounds, the botanical equivalent of anti-oxidants produced by plants to protect themselves from insects and decay, and which apparently help boost human immune systems, as well.
In Japan, the source of the study, people have known this for a long time, and engage in a practice called “Shinrin-yoku,” or “forest bathing”. In a 1998 report with the unwieldy title “Shinrin-yoku (forest-air bathing and walking) effectively decreases blood glucose levels in diabetic patients” 87 non-insulin dependent Japanese diabetics were sent for 3km and 6 km walks in the woods, and afterwards showed significant drops in their blood glucose levels. Researchers concluded, “Since the forest environment causes changes in hormonal secretion and autonomic nervous functions, it is presumed that, in addition to the increased calorie consumption and improved insulin sensitivity, walking in a forest environment has other beneficial effects in decreasing blood glucose levels.”
The more recent studies found that those who spent a few hours of the day in a wooded area showed “lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure.” Related tests also found that the more stress a participant was under before heading outdoors, the more stress reduction was experienced from Shinrin-yoku. There was also a 50% hike in white blood cells, the immune system’s killer cells, and in at least one study the counts remained elevated for an entire week after the participates were exposed to phytoncides.
These people got to spend a few hours of the day in a wooded area. They weren’t in an office, or in a heated discussion with a spouse, or hustling children off to this or that, or battling traffic, or trying to balance their checkbooks, or watching the news. All the other things they weren’t doing, taken alone, would account for lowered stress, pulse and blood pressure.
But whether it’s the walk or the woods that’s responsible for health improvements, there’s no debate in my mind when it comes to where I’d rather be walking: and that’s the woods. Or the seashore, or a garden, or along a mountain stream; anywhere the vista is close and green or wide and unbroken.
Sure, you can get your phytoncides from onion, garlic, or tea tree oil, to name a few sources. But an herb or a pill is no substitute for soft green grass underfoot, blue skies and tree canopies. When I’m outside, free of the unnatural sounds, angles, colors and textures of the man-made, the world seems to both fall away and open up around me. I move from the periphery of life into the heart of it, and take my rightful, delicately balanced place on the web. Light and shadow present themselves in new ways. My connection with sunlight and air becomes personal, molecular even.
In a wonderful book called “Teaching the Trees: Lessons from the Forest,” (University of GA Press, 2007) author Joan Maloof points out, “the molecules from the trees don’t just go up our noses…they are also part of the air that goes into our lungs, and once in our lungs, some of the molecules can enter our bloodstreams. So when we walk through the forest, inhaling the sweet air, the wood-air, the forest actually becomes a part of our bodies.”
Maloof says that researchers in the Sierra Nevada in California have found 120 chemical compounds in the mountain forest air, but could identify only 70 of them.
“We are,” she says, “literally breathing things we don’t understand. And when we lose our forests, we don’t know what we are losing. “
And when we don’t go outside, we don’t know what we’re missing.