It is a well-known fact for centuries that being in nature makes people feel good. The sound of waves, the scent of a forest, the smell of the sea and clean air – all of these things help promote a feeling of comfort, relaxation and well-being.
So what is the science behind this? Why does nature make us feel good and what, if any, is the connection to cancer?
When evaluating the benefits of time in nature for people with cancer, we can look at studies of forest bathing – which is a translation of the Japanese term “shinrin-yoku” – and is essentially, walking slowly in the forest with all of your senses open. This has become a more popular activity since its inception in the 1980s as it has been studied and shown to have health benefits. These studies show that forest bathing trips can enhance immune function and importantly for people with cancer, enhance specific immune cells (like Natural Killer cells) and anti-cancer proteins, which both have a role in our body’s immune response to cancer. This effect on our immune system was found to last for at least 7 days after the forest bathing trip, which was for between 2 and 4 hours a day, for 3 consecutive days. This highlights the importance of regular time in nature, to help keep our immune system healthy, especially for people with cancer.
The mechanisms behind these benefits are not fully understood however one hypothesis is that phytochemicals (plant-based chemicals) found in forest air, such as phytoncides, released from trees, contributes to the immune system response and in addition, helps to decrease stress hormones, which contributes to feelings of relaxation and enhanced well-being.
Our modern lifestyle does not promote a connection with nature and so for many people, forests are merely images on a screen or pictures on a wall. So how does one go about forest bathing? First, find a spot (consider checking out the AllTrails free app). Second, leave all your devices behind – bring only yourself, as you will be walking slowly and aimlessly. Lastly, let your body be your guide and listen to where it wants to take you – follow you senses and take your time. Listen to the birds singing, the breeze rustling leaves under your feet, feel the clean air as you breathe it in and don’t forget to look at and digest your surroundings. Now you have connected with nature and can reap the benefits.