In Japan, there is a practice called shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.”
In short, it is walking through a forest while focusing on deep breathing. While it might sound simple, Japan has invested in research to understand the benefits that come along with the practice.
Every study has demonstrated improvements in everything from stress to depression to sleeplessness.
Today, there are 44 certified forests for shinrin-yoku, and it is a recognized relaxation and stress-management activity for the country.
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Research on shinrin-yoku points to breathing in phytoncides (essential oils that come from wood) as the primary mechanism of benefit.
Phytoncides contain natural antimicrobial agents that support our immune system.
This, coupled with the other known benefits of spending time outdoors (walking, getting Vitamin D), works to improve our health.
What about the microbiome?
Though many of the benefits of shinrin-yoku are being discussed, no mention is being made of the effects on the microbiome.
Our microbiome has a vast impact on our physical and mental health, and recent research shows a link between time spent outdoors and a robust microbiome.
Could shinrin-yoku contribute in a positive way?
Our microbiome is shaped by our environment
Our microbiome is built throughout our lives, even while we are in the womb. Our bodies don’t just birth bacteria, the microorganisms that make up our microbiome have to come from somewhere – and that somewhere is our environment.
When we are in the womb, we get our first bacteria from our mother. When we are born, we continue to gain certain microbes. These differ based on the method of birth (C-section vs. natural birth).
As toddlers, we grab onto things and put everything in our mouths. In this way, we continue to accumulate microorganisms (good and bad) that help us build up our immune system.
Research is showing that the more we are exposed to in the first two years of our life, the healthier we may be as we mature.
Mother Nature is the ultimate in microbe diversity
Perhaps one of the most important microbiome shapers is the great Mother Nature. She harbors the ultimate selection of diversity. Spending time outdoors exposes us to new ecosystems and helps us build our microbial diversity.
Today’s modern lifestyle has separated us from the environment in many ways. We have designed buildings, vehicles, and lifestyles to keep the outdoors out.
Everything from the air ventilation systems we use to the activities we do is meant to keep us separate from nature.
In putting these pieces together, we can perhaps add a new mechanism of benefit to shinrin-yoku – its contribution to our microbial diversity and movement towards a stable and healthier microbiome.
One of the key researchers of shinrin-yoku poetically quotes, “feeding on the life of the forest.”
When taking the microbiome into account, his statement is not just metaphorical, but scientifically accurate as well.