We’ve been hearing more and more about how getting out into nature can help to improve mood, reduce stress and promote overall good health. It makes a fair bit of sense that as humans have evolved with nature, and therefore our nervous systems may feel most ‘at home’ when we are amongst nature. But it seems that there is more to it than that. Studies are now showing that some of the compounds produced by the trees in the forests we walk in have anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, neuroprotective and antitumor effects. These compounds (forest aerosols) are excreted by our trees (in particular, conifer and camphor laurel trees) and we can be said to be ‘showering in them’ when we take a forest walk. Forest aerosols are being shown to have many beneficial effects on health in laboratory testing and may be the reason that walking in the forest has been shown to benefit asthma, atopic dermatitis, immune health, cancer and nervous system health (Cho KS, 2017). It is not only conifers and camphors but other plants such as lavender, citrus, hops, peppermint and chamomile that also contain these beneficial compounds. If anyone needed a reason to go for a walk in a lavender or chamomile field, here it is!
Other health benefits can be attributed to the production of a compound called brain- derived neurotrophic factor (or BDNF) when we exercise. BDNF promotes what we call ‘neuroplasticity’ which basically refers to the ability of brain cells to heal and create new connections as is seen in learning and healing from damage due to stress, depression or trauma. A reduction in BDNF is seen in neurodegenerative disorders such as dementia and has also been linked to major depression, stress, obesity and cardiovascular disease. In the case of BNDF, we do not need to be walking in the forest to promote its production – any exercise will do (but a forest walk is a great option if available). Studies show that moderate to high-intensity physical activity are the most effective in achieving the desired increase in BDNF (Phillips, 2017).
So why not make a regular walk in the forest part of your health regime? When you breathe in those delicious foresty smells you are taking your aerosol shower and providing your body with many healing agents. If you are sick, it may assist your healing process, and if you are not, it will certainly provide protection against some long-term health complaints.
So, get a map, pack a lunch, get a buddy and get out there!