A Healing From The Forest

Just as phytoncides are part of the trees’ immune system, so can they become part of ours.

Once upon a time, a walk in the woods was just that — a walk in the woods. Now a walk in the woods can become forest bathing. Walking, running, and hiking in a woodland are exercise but forest bathing is a therapy. The fact is that when you go into the woods you are exposed to special chemicals that trees and plants produce to protect themselves from harmful toxins. These chemicals, called phytoncides, are essential oils found in many types of woody plants, particularly conifers. Just as these oils are part of the trees’ immune system, so can they become part of ours.   

We evolved along with plants and animals, and in co-inhabiting the world with them we all breathe the air given off by healthy forests. There is medicine in that air! Forest sounds, sights, smells, and tastes all have healing benefits. The land is offering to form a relationship with us, sharing its benefits with us and receiving benefits in turn.

A long tradition exists of spending time in forested areas to enhance health and well being, a kind of medicine walk. But now, Japanese researchers have discovered the reason people feel healthier after a woodland walk. People who spend time in a forest walk or “bathing” had elevated white blood counts, almost by as much as 50%. Other benefits were also noted: lowered blood pressure, heart rate and alleviation of depression.

A walk is not focused on a destination. It is the awareness of your surroundings with your senses finely tuned. You are in an environment with more brightness, more clarity, more peace. Time appears to slow down and you take the opportunity to look more closely at rocks and plants and trees. The whole point is to be in the moment, spending time in nature in a way that invites awareness of our co-inhabiting this place where we are.

With your intent to connect with nature, you don’t rush through, bike through, or run through. Walks are short, usually a mile, but can range from two to four hours long. During this time interactions are encouraged to take place, all designed to slow down the walker and open the senses.    

Start with a short, well-marked, quiet trail in good condition, with a large percentage under forest canopy. The beginning of the walk is for moving along at one’s own pace and enjoying the forest. You are invited to shake off the road dust and breathe easily. A walk should be as silent as possible, with senses alert, pausing when something catches your attention.

Each sense is encouraged. What do you notice? What captures your attention in bright areas? In darker areas? Stand quietly and listen to the sounds first in one direction then in another. If you come upon a stream, place your hands in the water. What sensations do you feel? Touch a tree, running your hands over it and even the ground under it. Smell plants. Crush leaves to release the scent of the plant.

In a form of body sensing called body radar, you stand with your arms slightly out from the sides, palms out as if hands were a radar device.  Moving slowly in a circle, pay attention to being pulled in a particular direction. When you feel pulled, follow this sensation and see if some particular thing in the environment is calling you.

Our Shared Immunity With Plants

Plants and trees evolved in a different way of life than mammals: they chose to remain fixed, which made it necessary for them to find solutions that were extraordinary and original. Within a stand of pine trees the air is almost germ-free due to the phytoncides released by the needles. These are part of the trees’ immune systems.

Another one of these defense systems allows trees to pump toxic substances into their leaves in mere minutes to rid themselves of herbivores. Trees can give off a warning gas that signals neighboring trees of the same species that there is a problem at hand. Plants exchange volatile compounds, such as the molecule methyl jasmonate, a substance produced under stressful conditions that bears the message, “I’m not well.” These various volatile compounds are vital contributions to living in community.

These evolutionary defenses have become part of the human pharmacopeia, as well. For example, research has shown that adding a pinch of crushed spruce or pine needles to a drop of water that contains a protozoa, kills the protozoa in less than second. The silver birch takes its color from its active ingredient betulin, which has antiviral and antibiotic properties. Willows produce a defensive compound called salicylic acid, making its leaves very bitter and toxic to chewing insects, but to humans this compound has become a lifesaver for treating pain and was a precursor to aspirin.

Active properties of trees and plants have specialized metabolites effective in medical treatment. For instance, tannins are used as inflammatories; the bitters of the thistle family make possible the digestion of fats; saprons are effective expectorants; digitains are heart medicine; and alkaloids contain deadly poisons used for medical purposes. There are over 380,000 different species of plants in the world, of which only about five percent have been investigated for medicinal benefit.   

In a forest, trees and plants live intricately interconnected lives allowing them to grow and evolve, and in the case of trees, live for centuries. They live in what one author calls a “wood wide web” of soil fungi that connects and allows them to share an enormous amount of information, resources, and goods. Intelligence, learning, memory and communication are qualities we share with plants and trees.

Trees depend on each other so they share their nutrients, connecting through their root systems. They help neighboring trees in times of need. Together many trees can create an ecosystem in which they grow slowly and very old.

Perhaps the original idea of forest bathing came from the Japanese garden. A Japanese garden is created to induce a state of mindfulness: the total effect of rocks, plants, bushes, trees, and water are put together to make an adventure for the senses. A Japanese garden is made for meandering.    

Forest bathing, or Shinrin-Yoku, as its known in Japan, comes from this tradition. Developed as a healing therapy in Japan in the 1980’s, it has become a staple of preventive healthcare. A person needs no money, no days off from work, and no expensive equipment to connect and receive a healing from the forest.

Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence by Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola. Island Press, 2015.
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben. Greystone Books, 2016.
A Little Handbook of Shinrin-Yoku by M. Amos Clifford
Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs at www.NatureAndForestTherapy.org

With over 30 years experience, Marie Cargill, LicAc, is a Boston-based homeopath, licensed acupuncturist, herbalist and holistic health expert for people and pets. Her newest book is Cancer and Your Pet: A Guide to Alternative and Integrated Treatment. Visit www.mariecargill.com.

See also:
A Walk In The Woulds
Plant Spirit Yoga: A Conversation With Lydia Russell