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8 incredible health protecting benefits of forests

Created by Laura Scott, M.A. |

There is exciting evidence supporting the need for investing in forests and green spaces for the health of all. This should get you up and moving, and possibly purchasing a house plant or two, or ten (we’re not judging).

There is growing evidence suggesting the health benefits of spending time in the forest, including physical activity in the forest. With Covid-19 lockdown measures, researchers are reporting rising inactivity levels, increase in consumption of unhealthy foods, and mental health issues are mounting, especially for youth. Well, there is a place you can visit which allow for exercise, mental restoration, and so much more- greenspaces. Research is demonstrating the forests' ability to strengthen human immune systems, lower blood pressure, provide anti-asthmatic properties, lower cortisol levels, improve mood levels, and lower inflammation.

Let’s go over some surprising health benefits supporting forest medicine, which may leave you wanting to go outside for a walk or run, and find yourself supporting the need for ‘green prescriptions’.

Antiviral plant VOC can enhance immune system response, promote antiviral response, and protects respiratory health


Compelling findings support the health protective benefits of green spaces and forest exposure. Roviello & Roviello (2021) notes how some regions reported lower numbers of Covid-19 deaths, and these locations happened to be in close proximity to heavily forested regions. Why is this potential link important? Well, forests are high in biogenic volatile organic compounds (VOC) and some offer health protective benefits. 

Forest producing VOC have been noted as being particularly beneficial for human health. For example, Behl et al. (2020) explained that triterpenoids  “possess the defensive and microbial protective activities" and the compounds "exhibit numerous therapeutic activities such as antiviral, anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory antispasmodic, and immuno-modulatory activities" (p.12). In addition, saponins “have ability to inhibit the cancer cells by arresting cell cycle and apoptosis” (Behl et al., 2020, p.11). The organic compounds in trees, plants and fungi also benefit human health. 

Well, it seems the VOC could be a potential “weapon” as the authors named it, against Covid-19. 

Analyzing data from persons living near heavily-forested Mediterranean regions in Italy, such as Sardinia, Calabria, and Basilicata, the researchers noticed there were fewer reported deaths from Covid-19. This may be explained partially by examining the environment; these regions have higher forest densities emitting higher amounts of biogenic VOC from trees and various Mediterranean plants into the atmosphere, and there is less fine particulate matter (PM) in the air. It is suggested that the surrounding forests may benefit the immune systems of the surrounding inhabitants. 

The researchers also recommend that governments worldwide consider green prescriptions, and the creation of nasal sprays with plant VOC as an accessible approach to providing health-protective benefits.

Interested in the scientific methods, the phytoconstituents, and its pharmacokinetic properties of VOC and findings? Click here to dive into the chemistry and findings of the Roviello & Roviello (2021) study.

 

Forest bathing reduces blood pressure, improves heart rate variability, improves mood, increases NK cells and much more


A literature review from researchers Yau & Loke (2020) reported that several studies found that walking in forests decreased both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. Forest bathing also increases Heart rate variability (HRV).

HRV is directed through the body's autonomic nervous system, and it is the variability of time between heartbeats. HRV is controlled by the parasympathetic system (the rest and digest response, a relaxed state where HRV is up) and the sympathetic nervous system (turns on when we are stressed or in danger, HRV goes down). It is generally believed that the more HRV, the better you can manage and respond to stress, improve performance, and can be used as a preventative health tool.

The researchers noted forest bathing improved self-reported mood levels, reduced cortisol levels, reduced urinary adrenaline and noradrenaline (produces fight or flight response), and inhibited inflammation (Yau & Loke (2020). 

A prominent study from Li et al., (2008) found that forest bathing increased the bodies Natural Killer (NK) cells and activity, and increase anti-cancer protiens. NK cells can be imagined as super-soldiers, they are part of our immune system. NK cells shoot out toxins that can kill viral, abnormal, and cancer tumor cells with apoptosis. Everyone can benefit from more NK cells, especially immunosuppressed persons (persons diagnosed with cancer, autoimmune disorders, HIV etc). who need more arsenal to bolster their immune response to fight disease and infection.

 

Forest bathing elevates serotonin levels-you feel happier and your mood is stabilized


A study from Park et al., (2020) reported the physiological effects of forest bathing from a group of middle-aged women in South Korea. The evidence showed that the 3-day forest-bathing group had elevated serotonin levels (a good feeling neurotransmitter) compared to the urban group who underwent a similar program in university-setting.

In trying times, naturally elevating serotonin levels is a great coping mechanism. Do you know what else increases serotonin? Exercise, especially aerobic exercise! Exercising in the forest packs a powerful double punch and boosts your mood.

Exercise is an immune system booster, especially when performed in green spaces. In regards to exercise-“it triggers many biological processes within the human body which in turn lead to heightened natural defenses against viral infections’’ (Roviello et al. 2021, p.1).

To boost your immune system and protect your mental health: move more and spend time in the forest. You can even bring plants into your living space, especially in your bedroom to clean your air. It also aligns with a biophilic design which purposefully connects you with nature indoors. Spread the word, advocate for green prescriptions and the protection of our forests for the health of all.

References


Behl, Tapan & Kumar, Keshav & Brisc, Ciprian & Rus, Marius & Nistor-Cseppento, Carmen & Bustea, Cristiana & Aron, Raluca & Pantis, Carmen & Zengin, Gokhan & Sehgal, Aayush & Kaur, Rajwinder & Kumar, Arun & Arora, Sandeep & Setia, Dhruv & Chandel, Deepak & Bungau, Simona. (2020). Exploring the multifocal role of phytochemicals as immunomodulators. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy. 133. 110959. 10.1016/j.biopha.2020.110959.

Li, Q., Morimoto, K., Kobayashi, M., Inagaki, H., Katsumata, M., Hirata, Y., Hirata, K., Suzuki, H., Li, Y. J., Wakayama, Y., Kawada, T., Park, B. J., Ohira, T., Matsui, N., Kagawa, T., Miyazaki, Y., & Krensky, A. M. (2008). Visiting a Forest, but Not a City, Increases Human Natural Killer Activity and Expression of Anti-Cancer Proteins. International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology, 117–127. https://doi.org/10.1177/039463200802100113

Park, B. J., Shin, C. S., Shin, W. S., Chung, C. Y., Lee, S. H., Kim, D. J., Kim, Y. H., & Park, C. E. (2020). Effects of Forest Therapy on Health Promotion among Middle-Aged Women: Focusing on Physiological Indicators. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17

(12), 4348. doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17124348

Roviello, V., Roviello, G.N. Less COVID-19 deaths in southern and insular Italy explained by forest bathing, Mediterranean environment, and antiviral plant volatile organic compounds. Environ Chem Lett(2021a). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10311-021-01309-5

Roviello, V., Gilhen-Baker, M., Vicidomini, C., & Roviello, G. N. (2021b.). Forest-bathing and physical activity as weapons against COVID-19: a review. Environmental chemistry letters, 1–10. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10311-021-01321-9

Yau, K. K., & Loke, A. Y. (2020). Effects of forest bathing on pre-hypertensive and hypertensive adults: a review of the literature. Environmental health and preventive medicine, 25

(1), 23. doi.org/10.1186/s12199-020-00856-7

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