Sensational Forests August 19, 2019

The Beneficial Effects of Forest Therapy

For ages, practitioners have walked the woods, to take in nature’s sights and scents. As nature therapy and aromatherapy gets wider acceptance in the modern lifestyle across the world, a look at how the two are interconnected.

“And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” John Muir, perhaps the greatest naturalist of all time, had got it right, back in the 19th century. This quote portrays his passion for spending time in wooded areas in all its senses, a fulfilling experience of exploration and adventure.

Aromatherapy in the woods is to simply breathe deeply, to inhale, exhale, and enjoy the present moment. There is something inherently therapeutic about it. A woody fragrance in the air, the sight of towering trees, rays of sunlight piercing through, the chirping birds, the humming of bees, the rippling streams, the rustling leaves, the winding pathways, and the aroma blends of pine, cedar, juniper, and cypress trees is simply something to be smelled to be believed. Beech trees take the weight off your shoulders and spruce trees make even the tired, weary soul into a ball of energy. The rich and warm aroma of sandalwood and cinnamon forests brings a wave of happy memories, serenity, positive vibes, and immense joy.

Scientific and clinical studies show that being outdoors, in natural surroundings, brings medicinal and therapeutic wellness to an individual similar to aromatherapy. Not surprising, since most trees and plants in forests emit numerous biochemicals and produce aromatic essential oils that are often medicinal.

Like aromatherapy, nature therapy can be used to improve the mental and physical well-being of people across the world; a walk through a forest instils curative effects upon the body, an experience similar to inhaling its essential oils.

Beech trees take the weight off your shoulders and spruce trees make even the tired, weary soul into a ball of energy. The rich and warm aroma of sandalwood and cinnamon forests brings a wave of happy memories, serenity, positive vibes, and immense joy.

And trust the Japanese to hit upon the boons of being mindful in nature before the rest of us. Since the 1980s, the concept of Forest Bathing or Shinrin-yoku has been gaining prominence in Japan, and has recently made its way to the west. Numerous Japanese studies confirm that humans need to spend time in nature regularly for good health. Benefits of forest medicine are catalogued by physician Qing Li, Chairman of the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine, in his book ‘Forest Bathing’. He states, Shinrin-yoku, is a short, leisurely visit to a forest and it is regarded as being similar to natural aromatherapy.

The New Yorker magazine described it thus, ‘The Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku is based on a simple premise: immerse yourself in the forest, absorb its sights, sounds, and smells, and you will reap numerous psychological and physiological benefits’.

Indeed, research shows that trees have healing powers. Antimicrobial essential oils called phytoncide molecules are released, that protect trees from germs, moss, and lichen and are also considered beneficial for people. Merely smelling the terpenes and other phytoncides emitted by the plants in the forest can lower blood pressure, pulse rate, anxiety, depression, and stress hormones like cortisol, while giving mental clarity, sound sleep, and a significantly increased sense of well-being.

The beneficial effects of forest therapy can be attributed to the olfactory system. Phytoncides like α-pinene and beta-pinene, which are commonly occurring terpenes in plants induce a relaxed state of mind.

Shinrin-yoku, is a short, leisurely visit to a forest and it is regarded as being similar to natural aromatherapy.

Using the practice of forest therapy, a slow, preferably barefoot (careful!) walk on the grass, using breathing exercises and meditation to enhance the experience, one can achieve deep communion and harmony. Just by being in nature, uninterrupted and contemplative, one begins the pleasurable journey back to oneself. The soil too plays an important role in making people healthy and happy. Smelling and touching the wet earth stimulates the immune system. The woody scents include trees and outdoor scents. But a walk in the woods isn’t just about trees. The crisp air, the citrus fruits, and the wild flowers are all present in the environment.

Thus, a blend which resembles a wooded or forest area includes oils of cypress, fir, pine, cedarwood, along with the spicy, floral and fruity oils like wild orange, lemon, frankincense, myrrh, nutmeg and cinnamon. To get a blend of earthy smells, add patchouli, valerian and angelica oils.

We live in an urban environment, or work in an indoor setting, where we may be experiencing symptoms of ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’. Richard Louve wrote the best-selling book, ‘No Child Left Inside’, coining the term ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ which he describes not as a medical term but as a metaphor for the increasing separation between humans and the natural world.

Nature Deficit Disorder can come in many forms, from a sense of disconnection, depression, stress, and high blood pressure, to name a few. Resignation and a life without meaning is thought to be intimately connected to disconnection from the natural world as well. Acrucial method for reversing Nature Deficit Disorder is to incorporate aromatherapy into daily life.

Indoors, sniff essential oils, spritz them in the air or to be in the midst of a majestic presence of energy, diffuse the oils with a powerful humidifier. You can also burn incense or candles made with natural elements.

Aromatherapy cannot fully substitute an authentic nature experience. However, using pure essential oils at home and at work recreates the fulfilling experience of being in the forest. Blends of essential oils are recommended as they recreate the natural blend of the many different aromatic compounds found in nature.

Diffusing any tree essential oils such as cypress, pine, fir, cedarwood, sandalwood, rosewood or Manuka with a citrus tinge of orange, bergamot or lemon oil and a splash of floral oil as jasmine, ylang-ylang or geranium will create a delicious and well balanced blend to enhance life on many levels.

The forest itself is a living organism, a community in constant communication as trees talk though their root systems. A forest is not just a collection of trees, it is a system working together, in sync with each other. Recent research and studies are showing what aromatherapists have been telling us for years, that the aromatic compounds in plants, when inhaled and breathed, help in healing the body and mind, leading to a life of balance and taking in the simple natural pleasures. The goal is to focus on sensations, smell and sound.

Sumitra Mazumdar
She is a Delhi-based aromatherapy enthusiast who has completed the American College of Health and Sciences’ Aroma 101 and is a NAHA member.