All of us know that spending time in nature benefits our health. But only recently, science has revealed just how strong our healing bond with nature truly is. Forest air, for example, contains a rich mixture of bioactive substances that trees use to communicate with each other. When we breathe in (this air), it prompts our immune system to increase the number of natural killer cells in the body which ultimately provides us with more protection from viruses. As if that gift from Mother Nature wasn’t enough, forest air also contains secondary plant compounds (terpenes) that support our defenses against cancer.
Qing Li, one of the leading scientists in the area of forest medicine, put together a list of basic rules to create the ideal interaction between forest trees and the human immune system based on his long-term studies. Here are some of his recommendations:
- Make a walking/hiking plan that suits your physical condition. Make sure you don’t get overly tired during your time in the woods.
- Remain in a woodland for at least two hours while walking approximately 1.5 miles. If you have four hours to spend there (and the stamina), hike about 2.5 miles. The longer you are exposed to the forest air, the better.
- If you feel tired, take a break for as long as you want. Look for a place in the forest where you feel comfortable.
- Pick a place in the forest that spontaneously speaks to you and invites you to stay. Sit for a while—read or meditate—or do whatever you want, just make sure you enjoy the gorgeous scenery and relax.
- Quench your thirst with either water or herbal tea.
- Consider adding a monthly camping trip to your schedule. In order to maintain the levels and activity of your immune system’s natural killer cells and anticancer proteins, you’ll need to stay in a forest region for two or three days per month and spend about four hours each day in the woods.
In addition to Li’s advice, I’d like to add the following tips I consider helpful for maximizing your health benefits through exposure to forest air:
- The contents of the anticancer terpenes found in forest air change over the seasons. The concentration is highest in summer and lowest in winter. Terpenes increase rapidly in April and May and reach their peak in July and August. During these months, there are the most terpenes in the woods for your immune system to absorb.
- You can find the highest concentration of terpenes in the middle of the forest since tree population is densest there. The tree leaves and needles form an especially rich source of terpenes, and the dense canopy prevents these gaseous substances from escaping the forest. Therefore, it is advisable to go farther into the woods and not just spend time on the perimeters.
- When the air is moist (after rainfall or while it is foggy), a particularly large amount of healthy terpenes are swirling around the forest air. If you don’t mind the moisture and are equipped with the proper footwear, consider taking a relaxing stroll through the forest after a light rain.
- Anticancer terpenes are the densest in and near the ground, where we humans are normally present. Once again, it appears as though Mother Nature has protected us by distributing this healthy substance at levels that are tailored to our body size.
Forest medicine is especially helpful when it comes to preventing disease. However, if you are already sick, or feel sick, please go straight to your doctor. Forest medicine is under no circumstances a replacement for conventional medical checkups.
Clemens G. Arvay, MSC, is a biologist and nonfiction writer who studied landscape ecology and applied plant science in Vienna and Graz. He centers his work on the relationship between man and nature, focusing on the health-promoting effects of contact with plants, animals, and landscapes. For more, visit clemensarvay.com.
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