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Forest Bathing: Benefits for Children and Caregivers

Forest Therapy has calming effects on adults, children and patients alike. Read more to learn how mother and nurse Lisa Gwiazda uses Forest Therapy to bring serenity to the people she cares for.

If I were asked to define the words energetic, active, abundance I would start by naming my four sons-Matthew, Gregory, Andrew and Peter. In the early years they were filled with energy and activity. After a long drive one Sunday afternoon my husband sensed the boys pent up energy. As we unleashed our two eldest sons from their car seats my husband wondered out loud, “ I wonder how many times we can run around the house?” The two toddlers took off and ran in circles around the house. Our night was more focused and calm. That was the beginning of energy management. We would get our sons outdoors in all kinds of weather burning their energy hiking and playing. Over the years we spent a lot of time in Vermont, which is a big playground for young energetic boys. After these adventures outdoors we were all more relaxed, calm and centered. Time spent at the table for dinner was more enjoyable. We were more present. Shinrun Yoku, forest bathing, outdoor therapy and nature walking are terms used to describe a practice that helps a person increase or maintain good health. The Japanese were the first to recognize the benefits of the practice Shinrun Yoku. Japan has developed forested green spaces in urban areas specifically for Shinrun Yoku (Lee, J. et al 2012). It is not unusual for a Japanese doctor to prescribe a dose of Shinrun Yoku to a patient. Forest bathing is the English translation. The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy’s website defines forest bathing as the practice of spending time in forested areas for the purpose of enhancing health, wellness and happiness. Research has proven that one of the important healing elements of forest bathing is the inhalation of phytoncides while walking. (Lee, J. et al 2011) Phytoncides are substances emitted by plants and trees. “Phyton” means plant in Latin and “cide” means to exterminate (as in microbial). The Soviet B. P. Tokin first used this term around 1930 and describes phytoncides “as substances produced by all plants which may or may not be volatile and which have an influence on other organisms”(Lee, al 2012). There are more than 100 different types of these phytoncides that can be detected in the air of a forest. Aplha-limonene and pinonene are the two that are usually most abundant (Li,Q. et al 2008). This new information got me thinking about the hikes my husband and I took with our sons. We thought we had figured it out – take the boys into the woods and let them play; we were geniuses converting that energy into a calm and quiet night. However, Mother Nature had it figured out way before we did! Stress is linked to the production and release of the hormone cortisol (Lee, J et al, 2011). I have to admit I have days that I am thankful for stress and a high level of cortisol that in me translates to energy. I can plow through the daunting to-do list in record time. The down side of being cortisol dependent is the physical and mental crash that follows after stressors dissipate. When you encounter a perceived threat, your hypothalamus sets off an alarm system in your body, triggering a release of hormones that include adrenaline and cortisol. Ordinarily, the stress hormone levels return to normal once the perceived threat has passed. But if you are always feeling pressured and “under attack”, the stress response system stays turned on, putting you at increased risk for a variety of health problems (Mayo Clinic). We welcome a little bit of motivational stress-it serves a great purpose until we over do it. Although we are now living in a society characterized by urbanization and artificialization, our physiological functions are still adapted to nature. Because of this tension between our body requirements and our manner of living, our stress levels are always very high and our sympathetic nervous system is excessively stimulated. In many cases, lowering elevated stress levels to a point where the body can function properly is an immediate necessity (Lee, J et al, 2012). I have felt this “immediate necessity”. It presents with signs and symptoms of exhaustion, distraction and insomnia. It may progress to a physical sickness if not addressed. This is exactly where forest bathing comes in. As the body approaches the “expected” natural state of well being, immune functions are enhanced and disease resistance improves (Lee, J. et al, 2012). It has been proven that a few hours of Forest Bathing increase natural killer cell activity and immunoglobulin levels, while systolic blood pressure, noradrenaline and cortisol levels wereshown to decrease (Morita, E. et al, 2007) How does one Forest Bathe? The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy website states Forest Bathing is more than a walk in the woods. It is a connection; it is a practice ( 2016). There is evidence that a simple walk in the woods, or sitting by a tree is beneficial to the chronically stressed and improves mood. Unlike other stress management practices and relaxation interventions Forest Bathing does not require you to learn specific techniques. The type of forest is insignificant (Morita, E. et al 2007). As a nurse myself, how can I and other caregivers incorporate Forest Bathing into our lives and our patients’ lives? Take breaks outdoors. Find a tree in the parking lot and make it your tree. Lean on it or sit under it. Breathe in the phytoncides. For the days you can’t escape outdoors find a view of a tree, woods or sky from a window and take some time to connect with it. The same is possible for patients. Turn the television off. Situate them so they can look out the window (Chandra, P. 2015). If there is no window place a plant or flowers in their line of sight. It has been reported that natural views from hospital rooms or indoor plants hasten recovery of patients after surgery and decrease systolic blood pressure (Okei, H. et al 2014). Forest Bathing reduces stress, supports our health and is easily accessed. I am grateful science has proven what we have known all along. The outdoors is a great place to be!

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