Most of the time scientific research just confirms what we already know by nature or common sense – walking in the woods (or “forest bathing”) for health is one of those instances. After all, who doesn’t feel better after a nice hike in the great outdoors, surrounded by trees and singing birds? Leave, it to the Russians, however, (a people who are known for their love for the forest) to do research on the forest’s usefulness. During the Soviet-era, a scientist named Boris Tokin found that trees and other plants release chemicals called phytoncides that protect plants from harmful organisms. In recent years, Japanese scientists connected Boris’ studies with a finding that walking in the woods or the forest has significant health benefits.
The irony is that humans are probably trees’ biggest threat, but I’m thankful phytoncides are good for us! Apparently, breathing in phytoncide-rich air has positive immunological effects. One Japanese study tested the levels of natural killer cells (NK) in subjects after they spent three days in the forest and found that the subjects’ NK activity increased by 50%. NKs are one of the immune system’s main mechanisms of defense against cancer and viruses. Time in the forest was also associated with an increase in inter-cellular, anti-cancer proteins. The really good news is that the NK boosting effects of spending time in the forest lasts for about a month – a great excuse to take a monthly trip to your local forest for camping and hiking!  There is also reason to believe that living in heavily forested areas is associated with a decreased risk of early mortality and cancer. Researchers compiled data from several major cities in Japan and found that populations that lived in areas with more trees had a decreased rate of several different types of cancer. I guess I need to get out of the Bay Area! Well, maybe not, we do have some pretty heavily forested areas nearby, including Muir Woods and the East Bay Regional Redwoods – I just need to take advantage of these places more often.
These studies might also answer a question that’s puzzled me for a while now. One of my grandpas has smoked a tobacco pipe several times a day for most of his life, but he is over seventy years old and in excellent health! How is this possible? I can tell you one thing, I don’t think his diet has anything to do with it. He does, however, get a lot of exercise and lives in a beautifully forested area of Northern California. Maybe those phytoncides are helping him! Of course, there are other forest-related factors that may lead to an increase in NK cells besides phytoncides, such as the peaceful environment, the eye-pleasing colors, and the fresh air found there. But whether its the phytoncides or some other factor, the wonders of God’s creation and the way he’s designed it to benefit his children amaze me. See you on the trail!