I’ve been doing this work–nutrition consulting, wellness coaching– for a long time now, and my biggest takeaway isn’t which supplement works the best or what food melts fat off your thighs. The single most impactful factor I’ve observed in people who want to get better is attention to stress reduction and improving one’s lifestyle habits. Self care. You can read my post all about that here.
If you’re experiencing digestive issues, hormonal disruption, low energy, weight gain, chronic pain, or infertility, your body is unbalanced, and likely some type of stress precipitated one or more of these conditions. It’s a pattern I hear regularly when I’m collecting info on a new client: things were plugging along fine until the person experienced a divorce, a cross country move, an injury, or even a baby, and they’ve never been able to recover. Their health hasn’t been the same and is maybe getting worse. Stress is almost always a main factor in chronic illness.
I noticed that I could recommend the best diet and the perfect supplement protocol, but unless the person addressed the cause of their stress, they wouldn’t get better. I also learned that this is the hardest part of my work: gently addressing one’s intangible barriers to wellness. Maybe this person is trapped in an unhappy marriage, a terrible job, or he/she can’t afford the bills every month. Maybe the person is deeply depressed, has unresolved trauma, or isn’t sleeping. Typically no one has broached the subject with them. It’s impossible to reclaim your health until you’ve dealt with your issues, and sometimes it’s just too difficult or painful to face. But I’m here to say that when you face whatever is holding you back, you’re free, and your health will respond positively.
We all have stress in the modern world. I’ve written before about the importance of sleep, self care, and even how to support yourself through inevitable stressful events so your health stays intact. But the biggest resistance people face when I say “stress relief!” is learning new habits, like meditation, or going to classes, like yoga, that cost money. And of course, time. But what if you could integrate one habit that doesn’t require any money or skills, improves your health, and has a huge impact on stress relief. Would you try it?
The Fastest Way to Reduce Stress
It exists, and it’s called forest bathing.
The Japanese call it shinrin-yoku, the practice of walking or sitting in nature, surrounded by trees, for stress relief. And it works. A study on forest bathing’s psychological effects surveyed 498 healthy volunteers, twice in a forest and twice in control environments. The subjects showed significantly reduced hostility and depression scores, coupled with increased liveliness, after exposure to trees. (source)
How Does Forest Bathing Work?
Forest bathing is proven to lower blood pressure and heart rate, reduce stress hormone production, boost the immune system by increasing killer T cell production, and promote feelings of wellbeing. (source) This is due to various essential oils called phytoncides found in wood and plants. Trees emit these oils to protect themselves from germs and insects. Inhaling phytoncide seems to actually improve immune system function and reduce stress.
Studies are proving it: “Forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments.” (study)
It makes sense, doesn’t it? Being in nature renews our spiritual connection with the planet and with the universe. Many of us work in artificially lit offices for 10 hours a day, then exit our offices out into the concrete jungle. We take a train home or fight traffic, then plug into our devices which further raise our cortisol levels. We don’t sleep well, and we’re exhausted and stressed during the day. Many of us don’t experience nature or greenery on a daily basis, but we’re learning that our bodies benefit from connection to nature, the trees and the grass. Nature rebalances our sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous systems. Often we’re too much in fight or flight mode, and this hastens aging and degeneration.
Lack of connection to nature can be a barrier to optimal wellness. It affects our circadian rhythms, rest and recovery patterns, and stress response. There’s even evidence that spending a weekend camping “resets” our body clock and natural sleep rhythms. (source)
So how do you do it? Ideally find some quiet, dense woods, or if you’re a city dweller, you can benefit from a park or trail, anywhere you’re surrounded by trees. Sit quietly; meditate; take a walk; soak it in. There’s no right or wrong way to be in nature, and it’s free. No special skills required. What we do know is that we need regular exposure. Take a break from your phone (leave it at home) and your screens and enjoy the landscape. Take your shoes off and feel your feet in the grass. Do this as often as you can on a weekly basis and watch your health improve. Make it an immersive experience.
I’d like to hear from you. How do you think nature benefits human health?
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. In addition to her coaching practice, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and kick nagging digestive issues for good. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.