The UK government announced in 2020 a £4m roll out of green prescription programmes in areas hard hit by Covid-19, Scotland has an official Nature Prescription programme and doctors in Canada are prescribing time in parks and nature to their patients with the US doing the same in over 35 states. All this is in response to the benefits of spending time in green or blue spaces for human health both physical and psychological.
To support the wellbeing of patients green social prescribing is a way for doctors to connect patients to a specialised practitioner as a therapeutic or preventative measure. This integrative health approach not only helps combat the rise in prescription medications like anti-depressants but it can help save money on what are already overstretched resources and reduce patient lists. Not to undermine the importance of medication for those with a diagnosed clinical condition, but rather to highlight how lifestyle changes and community support can relieve certain stressors, anxiety and low to moderate depression. Loneliness, obesity, and grief can be supported by green social prescribing. Doctors, therapists and clinicians are beginning to work in partnership with practitioners in the field of complementary and integrated health for patient care. Walking, gardening, yoga, and mindfulness are all nature-based activities that might be recommended. Another practice is forest bathing.
The term Shinrin-yoku was coined in Japan by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and Fisheries in the early 1980s, it translates as forest bathing or to take in the atmosphere of the forest. A form of eco-therapy the practice was developed in direct response to high levels of stress found in office workers in Tokyo sitting for long periods of time at screens without natural daylight, fatigue and burnout becoming commonplace. Forest bathing walks and forest therapy programmes were created to help combat the effects of these symptoms. A mindful, sensorial experience incorporating a slow walk, and a series of nature-based activities or ‘invitations’ designed to help relaxation and to deepen a connection and appreciation for nature. The healing power and ancient wisdom of nature is not a new concept but the human connection to the natural world for health may have gotten fractured or lost.
Dr Qing Lee, a doctor at the Nippon Medical School, Tokyo, immunologist and forest medicine expert is a long-time advocate of nature for human health, he is the author of the books, Into the Forest, and, The Art and Science of Forest Bathing Shinrin Yoku. His research and studies focus on how the body responds after time spent in restorative environments like forests. He explores why we feel happy when we spend time among trees and how the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and the immune system boosted.
We know we feel better when we take in a view like a sunset or the ocean, a sense of awe washes over us. We feel invigorated after a walk in natural beauty and perhaps our sleep improves. So how does this interaction with nature, especially trees work with the body physiologically, what is happening internally? As humans, we have evolved from nature, by connecting through the senses and our intuition and responding to the environment that surrounds us. Indoor, sedentary lifestyles and the increase in the use of technology has dumbed down our senses and forest bathing works at bringing the senses alive again. Using the senses as pathways to the mind and body. The science shows that seeing the colour green reduces heart rate and exposing the eyes to fractal patterns in nature can help reduce brain fog or fatigue. Listening to natural sounds like flowing water from a stream or a waterfall, bird song or the rustle of a breeze in the trees is calming whilst touching the earth and grounding the body helps let go of stress. Most importantly is the sense of smell and by inhaling the scent of the forest we can boost our first line of defence, our natural killer (NK) cells. Breathing in phytoncides omitted from plants and trees helps fight against invaders (in trees fungus and bacteria) in humans, helping to ward off disease. After a two-hour walk the positive effects can last up to 7 days after being exposed to the natural essential oils. These are just some of the ways a forest bathing walk helps. So significant is the research, Japan has designed forest planting trees specifically for forest therapy programmes.
So much nature…
We are surrounded by so much nature in Portugal you might think why have a green prescription or a forest bathing guide to take a walk? Consider how often you actually walk in nature and truly engage the senses. How mindful are you to take the time to rest, breathe and connect. A three-hour forest bathing walk is designed to help let go of daily pressures and by moving slowly through the stages of a curated walk welcome silence, reflection and even creativity. You could return to your day-to-day life relaxed and rejuvenated and with techniques you can implement by yourself, particularly useful if you're not able to access nature regularly. This is what we call in forest therapy, a nature-based wellbeing plan.
So next time you go for a walk in a forest or along a beach, allow some time to sit or stand and connect to the ground beneath you. Fill your lungs with wonderful clean air and let nature settle in around you and ask yourself “what am I noticing, on the outside and on the inside…and how does it make you feel”.
Photo by: Michael Mardon
Suzanne Radford is a certified forest therapy practitioner and forest bathing guide based in the Serra De Monchique, helping individuals, couples and groups connect to nature through guided walks, workshops for wellbeing and nature coaching.