“Like a man who has been dying for many days, a man in your city is numb to the stench.”
Chief Seattle, of the Suquamish and Duwamish tribes
It is more important than ever that we are conscious of the environments that we spend our time in. For the half of the world’s population that lives in cities, it can seem too easy for life to become nothing more than following signs though expanses of glass and concrete monoliths. One passes a morphing sea of unfamiliar faces, breathes in soured air, strains their eyes through never-ending neons as they move from point A to B, then B to C and so forth until they return to A, only to repeat the cycle ad infinitum. Life no longer belongs to the individual; it belongs to the city.
It is no secret that modern life in cities does not come without its health impacts. People living in cities show greater rates of asthma and allergies compared to their rural counterparts. Similarly, many mental health conditions such as low mood, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, PTSD and anger management all see higher rates when living in cities. Studies of the brains of those growing up in cities show noticeable differences in parts of the brain involved in stress responses. The bright lights of city environments may also hinder the quality of our sleep, and the kinds of noise exposure experienced by those in cities is linked to rises in cortisol levels, in turn increasing stress responses and, over extended periods, cardiovascular risks.
As nice as it might be to imagine a situation where far more people live most of their lives in natural environments over artificial ones, many of us are dependent on cities for our survival. The economic opportunities and access to housing, education and services are attractive advantages that rural environments can sometimes lack. Is there a way to meet our modern needs while combatting the negative health implications that living in cities can bring?
The Birth of Shinrin-Yoku
This was the problem Japan looked to address in the early 1980s. A boom in population in cities such as Tokyo at this time was having huge implications for the health of the populous. The explosion of the tech economy following World War Two brought with it long working hours and stress-filled routines. The rates of starvation, stroke and heart attacks linked to this new lifestyle was so significant that it gained its own name; ‘karoshi’, meaning death by overwork.
Along with improvements to labour laws, the Japanese government sought to find other ways of combatting the declining health of the urban populous, which included turning to nature. The term ‘Shinrin-Yoku’ – which translates as ‘forest bathing’ – was devised as a means of alleviating the physiological and psychological hardships that this new work culture was associated with. In its purest form, Shinrin-Yoku is the act of absorbing oneself in the atmosphere of a forest, with emphasis on incorporating all five senses. Although it should not be seen as an act of physical exercise in itself, some programs may incorporate the practise of Shinrin-Yoku alongside deep breathing exercises, meditation, Nordic walking and other such forms of lifestyle medicine.
The concept of man being on equal footing with nature has long been engrained in Japanese culture, being important principles in both Shintoism and Buddhism. Furthermore, many other cultures around the world have long recognised the power of nature and, more specifically, trees. One need look no further than the Yggdrasil – the Tree of Life – in Norse mythology, or the Buddha reaching enlightenment at the base of the Bodhi tree in India. Shinrin-Yoku can certainly be viewed as an extension of such ideas, but with the advent of evidence-based medicine, scientists have demonstrated that Shinrin-Yoku and other forms of ‘nature therapy’ can have positive physiological impacts on individuals. A few noteworthy effects observed by scientists include a reduction in cortisol levels and brain activity associated with stress, lowered heart rate and blood pressure, improved blood glucose levels in those with Type 2 diabetes and an improvement in immune responses due to an increase in natural killer (NK) cell activity.
Research in this field, while in its infancy, is beginning to support the long-suspected idea that time in nature, especially forests, is generally time well spent in terms of our health. More and more health professionals seem to agree, and now doctors across the world, including in Western nations, have begun prescribing time in nature as part of treatment plans. However, it must be acknowledged that many people have limited access to nature; some countries possess no natural forests at all, while those in socioeconomically deprived areas may not have access to the same abundance and quality of green space as those in wealthier nations. What options are there for these individuals?
One of the benefits of Shinrin-Yoku is exposure to phytoncides. Phytoncides can be considered a form of natural antimicrobial compounds that is secreted by trees, and they are implicated in the increase in NK-cell activity. Many of these compounds are available as essential oils which are believed to give a similar effect as being exposed to phytoncides naturally. Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a leading researcher in Shinrin-Yoku, suggests local parks and gardens as alternatives when larger expanses of nature are not viable options, or even something as simple as an apartment balcony where plants can be grown. That said, it seems reasonable to suggest that none of these will act as full substitutes for time in a real forest. Mindfulness practises often encourage engagement of all five senses to ensure individuals fully appreciate the state of their body and their environment, with Shirin-Yoku being no exception. As Dr Qing Li, of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine, summarises in his book ‘Into the Forest’:
“We are part of the natural world. Our rhythms are the rhythms of nature. As we walk slowly through the forest, seeing, listening, smelling, tasting and touching, we bring our rhythms into step with nature. Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world. And when we are in harmony with the natural world we can begin to heal.”
In this sense, Shinrin-Yoku is a means of reconnecting with our roots, with the science beginning to reinforce an inherited cultural understanding dating back thousands of years on how nature can be good for us. While Shinrin-Yoku in isolation should not be seen as the magic bullet to the ill health many people find themselves suffering from today, the health benefits of being amongst trees should not be overlooked. Especially for those who live in cities, there has never been a time when we as a species are more disconnected and divided from each other and from the world, with the irony being that our modern technology and lifestyles were meant to improve our social cohesion. If we wish to take control of our lives and of our health, then perhaps we should not consider ourselves to be above nature. On the contrary, we are cut from the same cloth, sharing the fibres of our biology to form the tapestry of the world we live in. If we continue to tear away the strands binding us to the world, we may only see our edges fray and watch ourselves unravel. Remain stitched to the seams of nature, however, and we may hopefully find our health, relationships and lives better supported.
As Hippocrates once said,
“Nature itself is the best physician.”
For those interested in learning more about the practise of Shinrin-Yoku, consider checking out Dr Qing Li’s books “Shirin-Yoku” and “Into The Forest”, as well as Professor Yoshifumi Miyazaki’s books “Shinrin-Yoku: The Japanese Way of Forest Bathing for Health and Relaxation“ and “Walking in the Woods”. Dr Qing Li is the president of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine and has worked with Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries on Shinrin-Yoku schemes. Professor Yoshifumi Miyazaki has spent over three decades studying Shinrin-Yoku and is the deputy director of Chiba University’s Centre for Environment, Health and Field Sciences.