For most of human history, a connection to nature was a fact of life. We were intimately tied to the cycles of the sun and seasons and whatever the land around us could provide.
But in the last few generations, we’ve managed to distance ourselves from nature in ways our ancestors would have never imagined. Today we can earn a living, go shopping, have a social life, and enjoy endless entertainment without ever leaving the house. Unless we have somewhere to go, there’s no practical reason to venture outside.
Our indoor lifestyle is clean, comfortable, and convenient, but it may also be starving us of something vital to our wellbeing.
According to Clemens Arvay, an Austrian biologist and author of “The Biophilia Effect: A Scientific and Spiritual Exploration of the Healing Bond Between Humans and Nature,” our bodies were meant to spend much of our time outdoors. Being in nature not only calms our minds, it may actually help prevent and treat disease.
“If you spend one day in the forest, you have 40 percent more natural killer cells in your blood,” Arvay said. “Forest air can also increase the production of DHEA in our adrenal cortex. This substance protects us from coronary heart disease and heart attack.”
If you spend one day in the forest, you have 40 percent more natural killer cells in your blood.
— Clemens Arvay, Biologist
Forest air has shown to increase the level of proteins that prevent cancer or fight a tumor if you already have cancer. This increased anti-cancer activity lasts for days after you’ve left the woods.
Much of this evidence comes from Japan, where a walk in the woods is recognized as a legitimate treatment. In 2012, Japanese universities created a new medical research department called Forest Medicine. The roots of this new branch of medicine stem from an ancient Japanese tradition called shinrin-yoku (forest bathing).
Despite the poetry of the term, no actual bathing takes place. Shinrin-yoku is basically a leisurely walk in the woods. But Arvay says it’s like “swimming with our senses,” when our minds and bodies are immersed in the wilderness.
One of the reasons forest air can trigger disease-fighting benefits is a family of plant compounds called terpenes. These volatile phytochemicals allow plants to communicate with each other and maintain the forest ecosystem.
“When a pathogen enters the forest, the plants and trees that suffer the first attack will increase their immune function and release specific terpenes into the forest air,” Arvay said. “Then other plants detect those terpenes in the forest air and know the message: Attention, we are under attack.”
This biochemical communication allows plants in a distant area of the forest to protect themselves against an invading organism.
“What’s so fascinating is that when we enter the forest and breathe in those terpenes from plant communication, our immune system also improves its function,” Arvay said.