I lived in Kings Cross in Sydney for 7 years – the most densely populated postcode in Australia at the time. On days off, I would often walk through Potts Point, around Woolloomooloo, and into the Botanic Gardens. Without fail, as soon as I found myself ‘in the trees’, I would let out a deep sigh, and I would feel myself physically and mentally relax. I never consciously felt stressed before my walk, but the change in my physiology was dramatic once I was surrounded by trees.
So, what was actually happening to me?
Scientists in Japan have been studying the experience of well-being in nature that the Japanese call shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing”. The researchers suggest that we are breathing in several beneficial substances when we are walking in a bio-diverse ecosystem – beneficial bacteria, plant-derived essential oils and negatively-charged ions.
We are surrounded by beneficial bacteria, and we share most of our body with them. Our gut bacteria produce substances that benefit us both physically and mentally. Plants, and the bacteria living on them, also produce beneficial essential oils known as phytoncides that can fight off harmful micro-organisms. One study found that a phytoncide from Korean pine trees improved the health and bacterial make-up of pigs.
There is also evidence that negative ions positively influence our mental state, and there are high amounts of negative ions in forested areas and near water. Bacteria, essential oils and negative ions, all interact and influence each other, and this same interrelatedness may also be happening inside our gut. So, do these reactions happening in and amongst the trees immediately affect the same reactions within our bodies when we walk in the woods?
It seems that a lot of people may be coming around to this way of thinking, as some Scottish doctors are now issuing ‘nature prescriptions’ as part of their treatment plan for patients with chronic health issues. We have long known that moving and being outdoors is good for what ails us, but now there is more recognition that a connection with wilderness (or with ourselves?) can be a gentle, effective form of self-care.
I dare say that this connection is not just an adjunct to the rest of our lives, but is a necessary part of being human, and being a part of nature. A connection that is all too easily lost in our frenetic, concrete, increasingly tree-less world.
Come with us to the beautiful Sapphire Coast and Snowy Mountains and experience our special brand of bush medicine – tea tree, banksia, snowgums and alpine wildflowers!
Fig tree image by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash