Vitamin ‘N’: The Healing Power of Nature
By: Rebecca Jennings, ND
We all know that chronic stress can majorly impact our health, leading to chronic inflammation and chronic disease. Stress comes in many forms: lack of sleep, poor diet, overwork, constant screen time, the list can go on and on. So how can we combat stress and lead healthier lives? Two Japanese scientists believe they have found one way to help alleviate the stress of modern living. Their answer is not another pill, but reconnecting to our roots in nature. The concept is called forest bathing, an idea that has been studied and championed in Japan since 2005. At the forefront of this research are Dr. Yoshifumi Miyazaki and Dr. Qing Li, who have been studying the effects of forest environments on humans.
According to Miyazaki, humans have spent 99.99% of their evolutionary history in natural settings, and consequently, their bodies’ physiological functions are still adapted to nature. This is why we feel comforted when surrounded by nature; our physiological rhythms are synchronized with nature, which brings peace and relaxation to the body. Miyazaki calls this connection between humans and nature ‘Kansei’, or intuition. Modern life has broken this bond. As we live in artificial environments away from nature, our bodies are under constant stress. This chronic stress is one of the main drivers of inflammation and chronic diseases in modern society (Park et al. 291-293).
Both Miyazaki and Li have performed numerous studies on the physiological effects of forest bathing on stress levels in humans. In one such study of 288 volunteers who sat and gazed at nature, cortisol levels (a marker of stress) decreased by 13%, sympathetic nerve activity (think fight or flight) decreased by 18%, blood pressure decreased by 2% and heart rates decreased by 6% in comparison to an urban control group. Dr. Miyazaki attributes this decline in stress levels to the body intuitively synchronizing to nature. When we return to nature, our bodies automatically relax (Park et al. 297-299). Another factor in this relaxation response may be the phytoncides, volatile organic compounds secreted from trees. Forest air can contain over 100 different kinds of phytoncides, major ones including α-pinene and limonene. Urban areas have little to no phytoncides in the air. Dr. Miyazaki conducted a study where participants inhaled low concentrations of α-pinene and limonene for 90 seconds. Statistically significant reductions in systolic blood pressure by 5% and 4% respectively were recorded for these phytoncides. (Park et al. 297-299).
While this article has only highlighted two of numerous studies performed by Dr. Miyazaki and Dr. Li, their work has given the world remarkable empirical evidence of what humans have innately known for centuries, that nature has healing powers. Their work has been very influential to the people of Japan and has led to a revival of forests, in particular community forests, in the country. Forest bathing has been accepted as standard preventive medicine in
Japan, and many people are flocking to the forests to help relieve stress and prevent chronic disease. Dr. Li believes, “Natural and Forest Medicine will prevent people from cancers and lifestyle-related diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, cerebrovascular disease, depression, and hypertension” (Ellison). As this research gains more attention, we may soon see more doctors recommending a regular dose of Vitamin N, in addition to diet and exercise, to help their
patients stay healthy. More reason to get out and explore the beautiful nature of the Pacific Northwest!
Ellison, Mark. “An Interview with Forest Medicine and Shinrin Yoku Researcher Dr. Qing Li.” Hiking Research. 23 Nov 2012
Park, B.J., et al. 2009 “Physiological effects of forest recreation in a young conifer forest in Hinokage
Town, Japan.” Silva Fennica 43(2): 291–301.