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How To Heal By Forest Bathing

Over the last couple of years, we have been working with universities to help them prepare for a changing world. We partnered with senior leadership to deeply understand the environment of the school and how the students felt about being there. The landscape of higher education is changing with the times, and it was essential to evaluate the “user experience.”

One of the most shocking discoveries we had was to learn that nearly 40 percent of freshman students were being prescribed anti-anxiety or anti-depression medication at one school. Suicide rates had skyrocketed, and fewer students were returning after their freshman year.

This should come as no surprise, though, when news of opioid-related deaths rising is a regular occurrence, and Big Pharma is spending millions of dollars to create another synthetic overdose antidote. 

I kept asking myself, “Why is this happening?” I knew that today’s complex web of hardships affected many, but why was it occurring more? What is the root cause of this dilemma? What has changed?

How can we strengthen ourselves, our community, and the world? 

As a wedding gift, we received a book called Forest Bathing by Dr. Qing Li. Our good friend’s parents sent it to us, and I immediately dove in. The book inspired me to go to five National Forests, and it absolutely changed my life. 

Now I know the one critical piece of the puzzle we’re missing. But before we get into that…

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By 2050, 75 percent of the world’s projected population, a whopping 9.7 billion people, will live in cities. We are now an urban and indoor species. 

Americans spend 93 percent of their time indoors. Europeans don’t get out much more, spending 90 percent of their lives inside. Whether you live in a city or not, you can surmise how staying cooped up can mess with your mental health

One in five U.S. adults experience mental illness each year, and one of every six children ages 6 to 16 experience a mental health disorder each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness

Studies show that when people are experiencing anxiety and depression, they are less empathic; they communicate less effectively, lose their creativity, and turn inwards. Eventually, they become more nihilistic and lonely. 

This starts to erode the social and moral fabric of our communities and the most important part about being human: connection to one another and the world around us.

We have isolated ourselves from nature, an integral component of our existence. We no longer interact with what we understood we needed for our survival for millions of years. Humans have evolved considerably, but we have also clearly gotten out of balance with nature. We’re disconnected

Less and less of our time outdoors is spent in nature. And for children, they spend half as much time outside as they did 20 years ago.

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Let’s talk about the nervous system, which is made up of two antagonistic sets of nerves.

The sympathetic system is crucial for the maintenance of life and is responsible for the fight-or-flight response when under stress. When that is triggered, your heart will beat faster, blood pressure will increase, and your digestion will slow. 

This is a primal, subconscious response. It sends the blood in your body to your legs so that you can run as fast as possible. Unfortunately, this is happening all day long for us. You get a phone call from your boss. The drive to work is stressful. Texts, emails, and people demanding your performance all day long continually activates that part of the nervous system. 

The rest and recover set of nerves is called the parasympathetic system. Research found that the opposite of a stress response happens when you forest bathe and relax in nature. Our heart rate decreases, blood pressure decreases, and our digestion improves. This improves how we absorb and convert food into nourishment, which slows aging and improves the immune system.

One of the ways to test the strength of the immune system is to look at the activity of our natural killer cells. 

Natural killer cells are a type of white blood cell that can attack and kill harmful cells, like those infected with a virus or tumors. They do this with the help of anti-cancer proteins: perforin, granulysin, and granzymes. These proteins create holes in cell membranes, and this causes the target cells to die. People with high natural killer cell activity show lower incidences of diseases such as cancer.

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We know intuitively that being out in nature makes us feel better. How many times have you wanted to go up to the mountains to breathe the fresh air? But we are just beginning to understand how vital this symbiotic relationship is with our overall health. 

Dr. Li’s research showed the immense physiological benefits of being in the forest. And the results are better than anything prescribed by a doctor. The best part? It doesn’t cost you anything. 

The art of forest bathing is the connection with nature through our senses. Finding our inner child and the curiosity that made us feel ALIVE when we were young. That feeling that as adults we often yearn for. 

After 15 to 20 minutes of walking through the forest, research shows you will have a more significant attention span, you can solve more complicated cognitive test problems, and creativity improves by 50 percent. If you spend three days in the forest, Dr. Li found that your prefrontal cortex relaxes, it resets, and energy, creativity, concentration, and memory increase.

Forest bathing reduces stress, anxiety, depression, and anger. It improves the immune system and enhances cardiovascular and metabolic health. You’ll even sleep better!

Dr. Qing Li found that after only three days and two nights in the forest:

  • Natural Killer cell activity went up from 17.3 percent to 26.5 percent, a 53.2 percent increase
  • Natural Killer cell numbers went up from 440 to 661, a 50 percent increase
  • The presence of anti-protein granulysin was up by 48 percent, granzyme A by 39 percent, granzyme B by 33 percent and perforin by 28 percent
  • Even 30 days after the Forest Bathing they showed a 33 percent increase in NK cell activity 
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Wander through the forest with no objective or goal. Let your instincts guide you and remember that it is our natural home. Listen to the SOUNDS in the woods. Natural silence has been called one of the most endangered resources on the planet. 

TASTE the water in the stream. Catch the drips of dew falling off the leaves. 

SMELL the trees, the dirt, the air. When you walk through the forest, you are breathing in medicine. The phytoncides in the essential oils the trees produce, strengthen the immune system. 

Some forests in the world have such potent scents that mosquitoes and other bugs do not go into them. This eliminates the contagion of disease throughout the forest and protects all the life in it.

Use your sight to look at how the forest moves and interacts with all the species in it. Our eyes weren’t meant to look at cityscapes. Studies on the effect of colors on emotions show that the blues and greens of nature are the most restful. They reduce our stress and anxiety. The greys of an urban scene make us unhappy and more aggressive. Looking at a natural fractal pattern, like when you are laying on the ground in an Aspen forest watching the trees move in the wind on a sunny blue sky afternoon, can reduce our stress by up to 60 percent.

Use your sense of touch. Feel the forest floor with your bare feet, run your fingers down the lines in the tree bark.

“Illnesses do not come upon us out of the blue,” Hippocrates wrote. “They are developed from small daily sins against nature. When enough sins have accumulated, illnesses will suddenly appear.”

Will Hurd Forest Bathing in Muir Woods
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A countless number of our illnesses, stresses, and anxieties are due to a lack of connection with nature. Taking a hands-on approach to the natural world will help to restore that connection. Feel the breeze on your face.

Forest bathing makes you stronger, and this repel effect will create stronger relationships, stronger communities, and more meaningful existence. The more we do this, the stronger our bond becomes with nature, and we will do a better job of protecting it. 

Many great thinkers in humanity understood this. Forest bathing has roots in many cultures throughout history. 

John Muir wrote, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home. Wilderness is a necessity.” 

Go out there and try it. Take a friend and leave your phone in the car or at home. Reconnect with nature using all your senses. You will feel rejuvenated, encouraged, and ready to pursue your wildest dreams.


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