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Earth Day: Commuting With Nature Relieves Stress The SeniorScape®



It occurred to me that celebrating Earth Day is a perfect conclusion to Stress Awareness Month.

 

Beyond “celebrating” or remembering Mother Earth, the planet on which we all live and to which we are all connected by walking on the same ground, connecting with the Earth can be a great stress reliever. It’s all around us and literally, right under our feet. 

 

When we breathe there is a free exchange of gasses: we take in oxygen and release the carbon dioxide molecules. Plants on the other hand, absorb the carbon dioxide and release the oxygen. This is only one reason for have plants in our living and work environments. 

 

This is the basis of the Japanese practice of “forest bathing”. It began in the 1980’s based on an exercise known as shinrin-yoku, also meaning “taking in the forest atmosphere.” Its roots, no pun intended, stemmed from two areas of concern: to mitigate the burnout experienced from the proliferation in technology and to encourage people to understand the importance of protecting the richly vast forestation in the country. It was quickly identified as having two purposes: one a practice in mindfulness, the other a form of fitness.

 

While the Japanese coined shinrin-yoku as the practice of “forest bathing”, understanding the important role nature plays in health and wellbeing had been long known.  However, it was the Japanese that began a formal study of the physiological and emotional benefits of being out in nature as a formalized practice.

 

The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries originally developed the practice to reduce stress for laborers. Seeing the apparent benefits in reducing blood pressure and promoting calm, Japanese doctors began incorporating it as a prescription for improved health and wellbeing.

 

Plants give off phytoncides, a term coined by the Soviet biochemist Boris P. Tokin in 1928.  The term actually means “exterminated by the plant.” Scientifically speaking, It is an “antimicrobial allelochemical volatile organic compounds derived from plants.” He found that the antibacterial and antifungal qualities of phytoncides help plants fight disease. He also found that when human beings breathed in these chemicals, it increased the number and activity of a particular type of white blood cell called “natural killer” cells, abbreviated as NK.  These cells kill tumor- and virus-infected cells in our bodies. 

 

As part of their metabolic function all plants give off phytoncides. Some of the plants that are the highest producers of phytoncides include: pine, fir, cedar, and oak and produce like onions and garlic as well as spices. 

 

Phytoncide benefits 

 

Lower Cortisol Levels

When the brain produces Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol it puts our body into a the-fight-or-flight response mode. This negatively impacts or body by increasing blood sugar, blood pressure, and heart rate

Research supports the fact that less than 30 minutes of walking or sitting in the woods can lower cortisol levels. The direct positive benefit is that this can activate the parasympathetic system focusing on recovery and relaxation.

 

Regulating Mood and Strengthening Immunity

Phytoncides can help reduce depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.   However, there are also a few types of phytoncides, one is the antidepressant β-pinene which also has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties

The side benefit is improved mental clarity, focus and improved ability to handle a variety of stressors, including stressors that trigger anger responses. Research has proven that even looking at trees provides a calming effect, but being in the presence of them and the phytoncides they emit drastically improves wellbeing in this area. 

As mentioned above, phytoncides have been identified in their ability to increase specific white blood cells which supports the body’s ability to defend against disease and illness. These cells are known as natural killer cells. Additionally, the phytoncides antifungal and antibacterial inherent properties nourishes the body.

Studies have shown that the longer one resides in the forest, the higher and longer the high white blood cell will have its positive body effect. 

 

Improving Sleep

Another phytoncide is α-pinene which has antioxidant properties, sedating and analgesic quality which promote improved sleep and can also reduce feelings associated with pain.

Even though walking in nature may help us feel more calm, phytoncide levels are the most optimal in warmer temperature forests. 

It’s not only the Japanese that have developed formal “forest bathing” expeditions, there are global movements dedicated to the practice. Forest bathing should not be considered limited to a person who wants to travel to far off wilderness locations or join outdoor expeditions, it can be as simple as walking in any local park where you consciously connect with your surroundings. However, there are formally structured 2-3 hour meditative expeditions designed for  an intentional “forest bathing” experience.

 

However, there are 5 place worldwide, where you can arrange specific “forest bathing” expeditions.

 

New York State: Adirondack Park.

Adirondack Park stretches  across more than six million acres of New York State and home to more than a hundred peaks and some 2,000 miles of hiking trails. It is the largest protected area on the United States mainland. Native Evergreens, Some of the most important phytoncide releasing trees include that provide a natural boost to the immune system which can last up to several weeks. Evergreen needles are also rich in antioxidants and vitamin C. Some needles from spruce, eastern hemlock, balsam, and pine can be steeped and sipped as a tea.

 

Costa Rica

A virtual “forest bathing” paradise with more than 50 percent of the country covered by forests which has nearly six percent of the world’s biodiversity.

 

New Zealand

The North Island’s Waipoua Forest, has the oldest and largest kauri trees in the world. The Maori people are considered “protectors of the forest.”.

 

Kenya

The Matthews Range which is in the Laikipia district of the Rift Valley there are ancient forests which are home to endemic plants, cedars, wild orchids, more than 350 bird species, elephants, and one of the only populations of de Brazza monkeys in the country—all ingredients for a sensory immersion excursion.

 

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