The Benefits Of Forest Bathing

Spending time outdoors as often as possible is widely accepted as a habit worth cultivating for overall health. When taken a step - or several more - further in the form of forest bathing (a mindful and multisensory immersion in nature), the benefits suddenly become infinitely more profound. Read on to find out more.

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For the majority of history, human beings have co-evolved with and depended on nature for their survival. It is no coincidence, then, that the more we have sought to distance ourselves from it, manipulate and even obliterate it, the sicker we have become.

Below are just a few examples of what is possible when this ever-widening gap between our evolutionary heritage and our environment is bridged.

  • An adaptogenic effect on blood pressure and pulse rate. A review of the scientific literature in Japan on the effects of nature therapy revealed that walking in the forest has physiological adjustment effects that bring the diastolic blood pressure and pulse rate closer to the ideal values.

 

  • A marked increase in human natural killer (NK or anti-cancer) cell activity. This study demonstrates that forest bathing can significantly enhance the immune response as measured by human natural killer cell activity and the percentage and absolute numbers of NK cells.

 

  • A reduction in blood glucose levels in diabetics. Blood glucose levels in participants in a forest bathing study were found to have declined by 74mg and 70mg after short- and long-distance walking respectively.

How To Be Healthy: Sleep

Sleep ought to be a welcome respite from the cares and frantic pace of the day but never has it been more neglected in human history than in our modern age.

The invention of the electric light bulb brought us one step closer to the manipulation and ultimate domination of nature, but at what cost? In a culture that celebrates the perpetual doer, it has created a perfect scenario in which daytime can be prolonged for as long as our packed schedules require it to be.

In his book, Healing Night: The Science And Spirit Of Sleeping, Dreaming And Awakening, Rubin R. Naiman paints a romantic scene of dusk as experienced in a bygone era.

 

"In times past, human activity naturally downshifted as dusk signaled the approach of night. There was no rush to get home since most people were already there. A majority of Americans were still living and working in rural areas. As daylight gradually receded, the winds would quiet, and the rhythmic chirp of crickets and night birds began as all things darkened, cooled, and slowed.

Evening activities occurred in a much gentler, dimmer light and were usually relaxing and restful. Dinnertime depended less on the clock and more on the season, on nature's timing. Rather than watching television, catching up on work, drinking, and being entertained, people made a slow and easy transition toward sleep."

 

The seemingly mythical beings depicted above were, in fact, made up of most of the same genetic building blocks as we are. Times may have changed but we have not. Acute and chronic sleep loss still trigger HPA axis dysregulation which is itself a key factor in any chronic disease process. Relinquishing the desire to remain active right up until bedtime is, therefore, still a necessity no matter where society decides to place it on the list of priorities for optimal health. 

I am not suggesting that we dispense with the trappings of modern living so that we can live exactly as our ancestors did.

What I propose is the use of technology in ways that serve our wellbeing and the elimination of habits and gizmos that do not.

  • Let there be little or no light. Blue light (from artificial lighting, digital alarm clocks and computer/television/tablet/phone screens) is known to suppress melatonin. The inverse relationship between melatonin and cortisol helps regulate the body’s natural rhythms governing sleep and wakefulness (or circadian rhythms). Melatonin rises as night - and cortisol - fall and aids effortless and restorative sleep. It, therefore, has an indispensable role in orchestrating the perfect conditions for the upkeep and repair of practically every system in the body. As day breaks, melatonin falls while cortisol is gradually elevated throughout the day to support wakefulness and alertness. Consider getting dimmers for the lights in your home for use after sunset. For even greater benefits, replace your bulbs with red spectrum ones - and dim them. I also recommend Blublocker glasses after sunset but only to mitigate the effects of artificial light on melatonin production - not as a means to use light-emitting electronic media late into the night. Minimise - or, better still, avoid - the use of such media at least two to three hours before bed. Cover digital clocks or get rid of them altogether. Use blackout shades on windows and wear an eye mask when you sleep for good measure.

     

  • Oscillate between periods of rest and activity. These are known as ultradian rhythms and it is extremely vital that they are observed periodically throughout the day. One cannot suddenly attain a state of zen-like somnolence come bedtime, having spent the better part of the day in an endless loop of activity and stimulation. Taking 20-minute rest or play breaks for every 90 minutes of work or activity is a good rule of thumb. You could also use breathing techniques in the Feldenkrais Method® or work with a Sounder Sleep™ practitioner in your area to further hone ultradian rhythmicity. This will, in turn, support the entrainment of circadian rhythms as described above.

     

  • Remove all forms of stimulation. Make your bedroom a sacred space where nothing happens besides sleep and sex. Simply surrounding oneself with a phone, television and engrossing books (without ever using, watching or reading them) is enough to scupper attempts to truly relax. Heated discussions or activities like workouts are also best avoided at least one hour before bed.

     

  • Keep noise to a minimum. Earplugs and/or a white-noise machine are especially helpful if your bedroom faces a busy street.

The above list is not exhaustive but is certainly as good a place to start as any.

Toxins: Easing The Burden

In a previous article, I touched on the importance of making our homes and bodies sanctuaries - of sorts - that are as free as possible from toxic chemicals. These are more ubiquitous than ever before so a multi-faceted approach is the best way to minimise your exposure.

Change is hard - and can be expensive - so do not feel disheartened if you cannot do everything recommended below in one fell swoop. I actively discourage you from doing so, in fact. The goal is to start somewhere - anywhere. When you get accustomed to each new habit, you will feel confident enough to take your next step.

  • Eat organic food. Ingested pesticides, antibiotics and/or growth hormones bear no resemblance to anything in nature, leaving your body unable to detoxify and excrete them to an optimal degree. In its infinite wisdom and in a desperate bid to keep us from harm, our bodies store these toxins in our adipose tissues, the cumulative effects of which can rob us of our health and vitality. The same phenomenon occurs in non-organic animals so it is best to trim off all fats (which would have otherwise been a great addition to your diet) from them before consumption. Similarly, there are no safe levels of chemical pesticides so if eating a 100% organic diet is too expensive, consider growing your own produce.

     

  • Choose non-toxic toiletries. Start by getting into the habit of reading labels and avoid those ingredients known to be harmful. For more information and resources - including brands with safe ingredients and those to avoid - please use the Guides To Non-Toxic Haircare/Skincare/Deodorants & Fragrances.

     

  • Choose non-toxic cleaning products. The market is flooded with brands that make all kinds of claims but as a rule of thumb, shorter ingredient lists with recognisable ingredients are less likely to be detrimental to your health. Mangle & Wringer is a pure, effective and affordable alternative that is available online and in some health food stores.

     

  • Avoid storing - and heating - food and drinks in plastic. Plastic leaches endocrine-disrupting chemicals (substances which dysregulate the perfect synchronicity of hormones) into food and drinks. While it is true that this is sometimes impossible to avoid (plastic packaging used for virtually all fresh food, for example), it is worth making a conscious effort to avoid it where possible. Kilner jars are a great alternative for storing everything from dry goods to bone broth. Stainless steel is a great indestructible alternative for lunchboxes, bottles, straws and ice-lolly moulds. Glass and ceramic dishes are largely oven-proof and therefore suitable for reheating food.

     

  • Filter your water. Many filters are unable to remove heavy metals, antibiotics and additives (like chlorine and fluoride) from the water supply so it is worth seeking out products specifically designed to tackle the broadest range of toxins whilst keeping the essential components of water as found in nature. It is also worth considering filtering water used in baths and showers. The FreshWater Filter Company has a great range.

     

  • Use air-purifying plants indoors. Several house plants are known to filter out common volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Aloe vera and spider plants, to name just a few, can also help rid indoor air of harmful chemicals by absorbing them.

     

  • Be mindful of hidden toxins in furniture, carpets and DIY materials. Look out for - and avoid - fabric protectors and flame retardants on sofas and mattresses, MDF in furniture and formaldehyde in carpet underlays and VOC-laden paints. These are known to off-gas carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. Choose natural materials like wood, removable/washable and untreated sofa covers and low-VOC paint instead.

How To Be Healthy: Manage Stress

At first glance, the hallmarks of stress seem instantly recognisable - work deadlines, financial woes or the death of a loved one. Poor diet, circadian rhythm disruption and environmental toxins (be they from make-up ingredients and household cleaning products or toxic fumes), are less obvious - and equally important - triggers and drivers. When viewed from this wider perspective, it is clear that everyone - from a newborn baby to a high-powered executive in the City - is susceptible.

I now consider behaviour - or the manner in which a person responds to a particular situation or stimulus - to be the underlying cause of chronic stress. It is, without a doubt, the greatest driver of disease in the 21st century.

These responses become the raw material that is then fed into the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (or HPA) axis. Perceived as threats akin to that posed by a sabre-toothed tiger, these responses to triggers set off a cascade of events. Elevated blood pressure and blood sugar, for example, flood your muscles with much-needed oxygen and energy and offer - what should be - short term protection from imminent danger.

Modern lifestyle choices (like late nights, fad diets and over-zealous workouts) have a habit of frequently triggering this primal mechanism. This creates the perfect internal environment in which chronic disorders - like type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure - can thrive.

The good news is that we can each begin to take small steps to change our behaviour. Easier said than done, I know, but well worth it. 

Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • Observe ultradian rhythms. Simply put, this is making a conscious decision to oscillate between periods of intense activity or work to periods of relaxation or play. It is the very antithesis of relentless activity that dominates every facet and period of life - holidays included - today. You could experiment with taking 15 to 20-minute breaks every 90-120 minutes. I have found the breathing techniques in the Feldenkrais Method to be particularly beneficial. You can find a teacher in your area here.

     

  • Entrain circadian rhythms. The observation of ultradian rhythms actually goes a long way towards regulating our circadian rhythms (or sleep-wakefulness cycles). We are designed to be active in the daytime (preferably outside in nature) and to wind down - in preparation for restorative, restful sleep - at night. This mechanism gets disrupted by exposure to melatonin-suppressing blue light, melatonin being the regulatory hormone of circadian rhythms. Blue light is emitted by artificial light and screens (including - but not limited to - computer screens, tablets, smartphones and television) so it is best to limit exposure to these at least two to three hours before bed.

     

  • Change your thought patterns. We identify so much with the constant chatter in our heads that we frequently perceive it to be the unequivocal truth. It is possible to train oneself to not take everything so personally and to frame events more positively. For example, the man who just cut you up in traffic may be late for an important appointment and not at all focused on putting you in a bad mood. In the same vein, "failure" could be perceived as an opportunity to work out - without judgement of oneself - what one could have done differently to achieve a desired result. Meditation is a great way to train your mind to not get too attached to your thoughts.

     

  • Limit exposure to environmental toxins. Granted, we all have to live in a world where toxicity is rife but we can choose to make our homes - and our own person - a sanctuary of sorts from it all. I have created a few guides to help you with tips, resources and recipes (should you wish to make your own products). I post new ones periodically and you can download them here.