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Calabogie Hiker: Forest Bathing, Medicinal Hiking Method

Spring Flowers

BLOG 13: Forest Bathing in the Highlands anyone?

Have you ever seen these exotic Canadian flowers (below) while hiking in the Madawaska Highlands? Well, if you haven’t been so lucky, they are blooming near you right now. (May-June NE ON/QC) Perhaps you were not hiking at the pace of a Forest Bather?

Forest bathing is an actual ‘method’ of hiking that has been thoroughly studied by Japanese scientists for over 35 years. They have been practicing this hiking method long before their government started to study it. Today, Forest Bathing is part of the Japanese preventative health care system.

Forest Bathing differs from hiking or nature walks by slowing down the hiker to a pace that doesn’t disturb wildlife under the forested canopy. Walking at a comfortable pace the Forest Bather can effectively hear every sound, smell and see every flower. Being ‘present’ in the forest helps bathers to soak in the calming green view surrounding them. Nature Walkers, on the other hand, tend to stop frequently and discuss various plants or points of interest. Unlike Nature walkers, Forest Bathers experience no pressure to know or say anything while walking. Bathers stroll idyllically under the forested canopy on an easy trail and soak in the forest atmosphere with not a care in the world. At a much quicker pace, the hiker usually has a map in hand and has a view or lookout to find and maybe one or two snacking stops along the way. Hikers go a long distance and could be out for 6 to 8 hours. The Forest Bather only strolls for a mile or two and leisurely spends 3 hours doing it. Hmmn, Nature walks, hiking and now Forest Bathing?

Why is Forest Bathing becoming collectively ‘known’ to the Western world so suddenly? Can it be that it’s just another sweeping fad? Residents of the Madawaska Highlands surely know how healthy it is to live near the woods as opposed to the city. They are aware the forests surrounding them produce oxygen necessary for life. Do we really need to know more? Well, you do. Japan is the world leader in scientific studies on the effects of Forest Bathing. They have proven a multitude of health benefits over the years that are astounding to read about. Psychologically, Forest Bathers, have experienced reduced hostility and depression during their walks and come out of the woods with an increased lifeforce. I also read that forest bathers can experience stronger bonds with the person they regularly hike with in the woods. A wonderful and valuable side-benefit for partners and families. Children, who spend a lot of quality time in the woods, like camping for example, have been known to grow up and become stewards of the environment in some beneficial way. They naturally feel from a very young age that ‘the forest is special’ and that feeling is, well, special, and undoubtedly nourishing to the soul. (see Ted Talks Emma Marris link below)

As it turns out, forests don’t just exist to make furniture or things for us but have an important and necessary role in our physical and mental health. Scientists around the world have proven old forests to be in a complex overlapping bio system where trees and plants communicate ‘chemically’ with one another to survive in a sustainable way. Trees are also known to exchange carbon in a unique language of their own and in this way mother trees teach seedlings how to survive in a changing climate. (watch Ted Talks Suzanne Simard link below) Under a forested canopy there is a proven frenzy of phytoncide exchanges in the air between plants, fruits and trees. Phytoncides are volatile compounds found in essential oils. They are antimicrobial in nature which means they kill BOTH bacteria and viruses. Trees silently spew out phytoncides across the canopy to protect themselves from germs and insects. When we humans go into the forest and breathe these essential oils our immune function measurably improves and works better. We in turn gain protection from germs and viruses, too. Japanese studies also found that a couple of days in the woods improves our immune function for at least a month long. That’s astounding. I should add that plant essential oil therapy (Aromatherapy) has been practiced around the world for many centuries, too. The oils are distilled out of the plants and trees and then sniffed or ingested for their health benefits. In France and Germany, physicians prescribe essential oil therapy to their patients. In Canada, selling most (almost all) essential oils for ingestion is illegal. We can sniff away but can only ingest a very few, for example, oregano oil is a common oil we Canadians ingest during the cold and flu season. Health Canada cautions that a tiny bottle can cause epilepsy or kill a small child. Oils like sandalwood can cost $55 for ½ an ounce. Yikes. Walking in the woods seems like the safest and cheapest method to me. Who would of thought that a stroll in the highlands could physically and measurably improve our immune function and lower stress levels every time we venture out into the woods? Who would of thought that your forest down the street is necessary for the health of you, your family or your whole neighborhood? I’d think twice before cutting that tree, eh.

Let me explain, if you are comfortable in a forest atmosphere, you know and feel your stress levels drop sometimes within moments of entering the forest atmosphere. Why so fast? Tests show simply breathing the phytoncides in the air physically lowers our blood pressure, slows our pulse rate and lowers our cortisol levels. Cortisol is the flight or fight chemical produced in our adrenal glands. Cortisol is secreted by the adrenals for any type or degree of stress. Did you know most people suffer from some form adrenal exhaustion by the age of 50? Too much cortisol in our bloodstream creates a stressful frenzy in all our organs including the brain, and ultimately shortens our lives in a variety of ways. Did you know high blood pressure is a well-known precursor of heart attacks. Therefore, by lowering our pulse rate, blood pressure and cortisol, Forest bathing gives us a healing break from the deadly stressors in the world. Please don’t believe North American articles that mention going to the park or spending some time ‘outdoors’ will give you the same health benefits as Forest Bathing. Those outings are beneficial no doubt but scientific studies all indicate that being under a closed forest canopy will give actual therapeutic doses of phytoncides. The park sadly does not unless it is under a canopy of trees, of course. It makes sense to be inside the forest and bathe in its highly charged microclimate. Virgin and old growth forests are the best as you may have guessed.

Even if you think you do not live a stressful life, think again, studies show that most of us spend up to 80%-90% indoors and consequently are not breathing enough phytoncides. Apparently another 6% of our outdoor time is spent in a car! That’s not entirely true for me, thank goodness, but even I still need to spend way more time outdoors! How about you? As I write this article it is World Environment Day, advertisements are urging everyone to plant a tree or at least to get outdoors for an HOUR and enjoy nature. This is a good start for many people but my wish for you is to spend a whole day or a couple days every week in the woods and just breathe.

Please share this article with a child. Thank you.

In celebration of our 150th birthday Canada is giving out free Parks Canada Discovery passes, a great excuse to go Forest Bathing in pristine wilderness:}


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