A human brain weighs about three pounds and contains more than 80 billion neurons—each one connected electrically and chemically with 10,000 others in the body. This remarkable amount of activity comprises the world’s most complex network of interconnections.
That said, it is the least understood organ in the human body.
One thing we do know about the brain is that it contains a natural pharmacy comprising some powerful, positive (and negative) chemicals.
I’m an evidence-based guy, a science nerd to some degree, especially when it comes to cancer treatments and the things we can and should do to help prevent, manage, or otherwise hold at bay an underlying malignancy.
It is not always necessary to have a deep scientific understanding of how certain things work. If a practice is safe, does not pose contraindications, is cost effective for your situation, and is effective for you as an n of 1… then go for it. You live in the here and now—hopefully, in the future, the science will catch up to support your sensible choices today.
Creating ‘Happy’ Brain Chemicals
The four primary brain chemicals—also referred to as neurotransmitters—that effect happiness are: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins.
Despite our unique emotional, psychological, and physical health, proactive actions that we take to consistently reduce or eliminate harmful hormones throughout our body (such as cortisol production in the adrenal glands) and turn on the ‘happy’ ones, are vital to our thriving. Put simply, we are best served by proactively regulating our internal pharmacy of hormones and brain chemicals.
Previously, I’ve written about how to engage the mind to positively influence cancer outcomes, offering 27 ways to go about it. In that same piece I shared some of the growing research showing strong correlation, and suggesting cause, specific to exercise and meditation, and how these activities change the brain and influence cancer biology.
But today, as we inch closer to spring and warmer weather here on the east coast of the U.S., I want to share why we all need to spend time taking in the wonders of nature, and specifically focus on the practice of forest bathing.
Inside The Box
It is estimated that by 2050 three-quarters of the world’s population will live in cities. Currently, average Americans spend 93% of their time indoors, and more time on social media than they sleep. Given what we know about the benefits of being outdoors—immersed in nature—these are staggering facts.
Take your own twenty-four seven. Subtract the hours you spend inside. Even if you don’t count your sleep time, the amount of waking hours spent indoors is, well, almost all the time. By comparison, our nature-centered ancestors did not suffer the same stress-related diseases that our current population does.
Outside The Box: The Art + Science of Forest Bathing
To fully understand the intent of forest bathing, forget, for now, the purposeful outdoor exercises known as jogging, marathons, mountain climbing, or other extreme activities. Forest bathing promotes being outdoors in, you guessed it, a forest, only for the sake of being in a forest.
What people do there as they forest bathe is completely individual, (think: strolling, stretching, yoga, reading, writing, meditating, or simply breathing… and being). One study on creativity states that forest bathing can simply be the act of becoming mesmerized by the rustle of leaves or the sound of birds.
The Roots of Forest Bathing—Shinrin’yoku
“Some people study forests. Some people study medicine. I study forest medicine to find out all the ways in which walking in the forest can improve our well-being.” ~Dr. Qing Li
Japan is known for its lush forests. Spending time in those forests has long been a Japanese practice—an ancient one. Fast forward a millennia or two, and in 1982 Japan launched its national program encouraging forest bathing. It continues to be a large part of preventative healing in Japan.
Coniferous forests appear to be the most powerful places to forest bathe. That said, all of nature is a wellness clinic, and parks with a variety of trees and plants can benefit individuals who set out to spend time in nature.
I, for one, have consistently utilized nature as a significant part of my healing process, and wrote about my regular strolls through the forest in n of 1.
Nature’s Effect on the Brain
What can forest bathing do for you?
- Improve your immune system
Plants and trees emit phytoncide, an essential oil that protects the plant from insects and disease. Forests—the air in forests—is rife with these chemicals. Inhaling phytoncide enhances NK cell activity.
NK cells, Natural Killer cells, (aka K cells or Killer cells), are a type of white blood cell (lymphocyte) and are a component of the immune system. They play a major role in the host-rejection of both tumors and of cells which are infected by viruses.
When NK cell activity is enhanced—by inhaling the essential oils emitted by the trees in the forest—the human immune system is strengthened.
- Reduce stress and improve mood
When we spend time in nature we release hormones that relate to joy and calm.
A study conducted by Professor Miyazaki, Chiba University, Japan, compared a city walk with a stroll in the forest. Participants reported improved mood after ‘forest bathing’ and the results showed a 12.4 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol. Dr. Miyazaki began his experiments in 1990, after he joined the governmental Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute.
- Increase creativity
David Strayer, University of Utah, reported that participants in his study saw a 50% improvement in creative problem solving after three days of nature immersion during which there was no access to modern technology. Research cited and additional information.
- Help hearts be healthier
A meta study in Japan—20 trails, 732 participants—demonstrated that blood pressure levels of participants immersed in forest bathing were significantly lower than those whose were measured in an unnatural environment.
- Speedy recoveries
While it is not strictly forest bathing, decades ago, architect Dr. Roger Ulrich, who specializes in the design of buildings for healthcare, showed that even a view of nature (from a window) had a positive effect on convalescence (compared to an urban view). Imagine what full immersion in nature can do for recovery.
Take Your Brain For a Stroll
Our ancestors were immersed in nature. Some remote tribes still are. We have artificialized our surroundings, and that’s okay. Who doesn’t want a roof over her head? But, as we’ve built walls around ourselves, and housed ourselves inside rooms—sometimes windowless—inside buildings, as we’ve pulled down the blinds to cut the glare on our computer screens, we have locked ourselves out of the natural medicine cabinet.
Though most of us live in urban environments, we still have access to preserved areas of natural beauty; woods and forests are still within reach. We still have the trees. All we need to do is marry the outdoors with the knowledge of the benefits of forest bathing and we can access a wellness opportunity as close as our nearest nature preserve or park.
Where is the irrefutable evidence that forest bathing, or the promotion of ‘good chemicals and hormones’ in the brain (and body) in general, prevents cancer, helps manage cancer, or supports deep and durable cancer remissions?
It’s a great question.
While we wait for the science to catch up—and discover the other 90% of how the brain works—go outside today and hug a tree.
Photo credit: bigstockphoto/LiaKoltyrina