Imagine yourself in the middle of a forest surrounded by the sounds of chirping birds and a babbling brook. The massive trees above create a canopy of green foliage through which the sun shines. How do you feel? For most of us, simply thinking about a scene like this can calm us down. But actually spending time in nature may have even greater health benefits.
Research in recent years has shown that time spent in nature—known as forest medicine—may improve cognition, relieve anxiety and depression, and increase feelings of empathy. I see a distinct connection between forest medicine and the two foundational principles of naturopathic medicine: the healing power of nature and treating the whole person.
Much of the research on forest medicine has occurred in Japan since 1992. In one study, researchers recorded an increase in the body’s relaxation response, also known as our parasympathetic response. They also found that sitting in a forest improved health by reducing the following:
- Levels of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol
- The body’s overall stress response
- Blood pressure levels
- Heart rate
These results are promising considering the link between stress, high blood pressure and disease. Chronically high blood pressure puts us at risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke. Similarly, long-term stress can increase our risk of several health conditions, including heart disease, digestive problems, anxiety and depression.
Another Japanese study found that walking in a forest increased the activity of natural killer cells in the body. Natural killer cells are a critical part of our immune system, protecting us by preventing viruses and destroying cancer cells. Among study participants, the activity of natural killer cells remained elevated for 30 days after they had spent time in a forest and had returned to their urban lifestyle.
The research on forest medicine reinforces what I’ve told my patients over the years: It’s important to spend time in nature to help manage the stress of a cancer diagnosis, as well as the stress you may experience during treatment and recovery. The growing body of research on forest medicine matters for all patients, no matter where they are in their cancer journey, and for anyone who wants to improve their overall well-being and prevent disease.
Yet, for many of us, it may be difficult to get to a forest or another natural setting. The next logical step is to bring the forest indoors. Researchers have simulated the forest with forest sounds, smells and sensations with similar results: reducing blood pressure and heart rate, and increasing the body’s relaxation response. So bring plants and the sounds of the forest indoors because adding a little bit of nature to your day may be beneficial, as well.
Learn more about improving quality of life during and after cancer treatment.