Our bodies produce a hormone from cholesterol molecules called cortisol. The adrenal glands are responsible for this production and one sits on top of each kidney. An evolutionary response of cortisol was to flood the body with an immediate energy source to the large muscles during a fight-or-flight situation. For an example, let’s say we are being chased by a hungry lion out on the African savannah. Cortisol might give us the mental clarity and ability to get out of harm’s way. Once the danger passed, cortisol level would drop, and our bodies would return to a more normal state. This would be an example of an acute form of stress.
A chronic form of stress may be commuting daily to and from work in bumper to bumper traffic. The frequency and duration of this modern type of stress can give us a chronic condition for higher cortisol level. This condition will negatively impact us by suppressing our immune system, elevating our blood pressure, producing acne, decreasing our libido and contributing to obesity. Cushing’s disease, characterized by rapid weight gain in the face, chest and abdomen contrasted by slender arms and legs, is also brought on by a chronically higher level of cortisol.
Have you ever had a feeling of calmness after a hike through a wooded area? There is a reason for that feeling which can be explained scientifically. A twenty- minute walk in the forest can actually reduce cortisol level. Trees, especially evergreens, secrete a chemical called phytocide that reduces the blood level of cortisol. In addition to lowering cortisol level, the phytocides pinenes and limonenes have properties that boost our immune system. Pinenes are antimicrobial and limonenes help suppress cancer tumors. Additionally, phytocides benefit us by lowering our blood pressure and pulse rate; reducing psychological stress and hostility.
When “taking in the forest atmosphere” or the Japanese term shinrin-yoku, we have intuitively known that this was good for us. Sanatoriums in Germany’s pine forest and the Adirondack Mountains of New York used forest air to help treat tuberculosis patients in the mid-to-late 1800’s. Patients slept on sleeping porches to receive that beneficial air. We now know that air contained pinenes which had a lethal effect on the tuberculosis bacterium.
Even the “Father of Our National Park System”, John Muir is quoted for saying “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home. Wilderness is a necessity.”
Millions of dollars have been spent on research and the building of forest trails by Japan, South Korea and Finland. Japan has 48 official forest therapy trails and counting. Their companies are including forest therapy into their employee health care packages. In Japan alone, millions of visitors walk these trails annually.
Despite the recent urban growth over suburban areas in the U.S., there is a movement towards including the benefits of forest therapy into everyday life. Many states are now offering certification programs to become a Forest Therapy guide. Also, there are benefits to be gained by the visual presence of a mini-forest. Hospitals have noted shortened patient stays, there are reduced anxiety levels in prison inmates, and the increased ability to focus by children with ADHD.
Another quote from John Muir: “I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.” Have you taken a walk into the woods lately?
Click here to take a visual walk through the Redwoods by Steven Poe.
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For my next post, we will look at the benefits of sunlight on our health.
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