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natural killer (NK) cell activity, and the numbers of NK cells and anti- cancer proteins known to combat cancer


The Healing Power of a Walk in the Woods by Maggie Spilner

ature doesn’t bang any drums when she bursts forth into flowers, nor

play any dirges when the trees let go of their leaves in the fall. But when we approach her in the right spirit, she has many secrets to share. If you haven’t heard nature whispering to you lately, now is a good time to give her the opportunity.”

~ Osho, in Osho Zen Tarot: the Transcendental Game of Zen

As we all innately know, spend- ing time in nature is good for our body, mind and spirit. It’s why we’re attracted to green places, flowers, lakes, fresh air and sunshine. Taking a nature walk— affording plenty of fresh air and exer- cise in a quiet setting—has traditionally been prescribed for good health. That raises a question: How much natural healing are we sacrificing when we spend most of our days indoors? In Japan, a group of medical

researchers and government-affiliated forest organizations support the cre-

20 Hudson County

ation of forest therapy centers, where people enjoy the trails and guided walks and also receive free medical checkups under the trees. Since 1984, they have been studying the health benefits of walking in the woods, termed shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. There are now more than 30 such of- ficially designated sites.

In related studies, scientists from Japan’s Nippon Medical School and Chiba University tracked positive physiological changes in individuals walking in the woods compared with city walkers. Early results were pub- lished in the International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology, European Journal of Applied Physiol- ogy and Journal of Biological Regula- tors and Homeostatic Agents. Forest walkers showed:

n Lower concentrations of salivary cor- tisol, known as the stress hormone

n Lower blood pressure and heart rate n Reduction of adrenaline and noradrenalin, also stress-related hormones

n Increase in immunity-boosting

Newest Findings The researchers theorized that or- ganic compounds called phytoncides, produced by trees and other plants as a protection from disease, insects and fungus, were also producing beneficial natural killer cells in people in the for- ests. In a study that exposed participants to phytoncides via aromatic oils fed through a humidifier in a hotel room, the researchers found similar increases in NK levels. A 2011 study by Nippon Medical School’s department of hygiene and public health showed that the result- ing increase in NK cells lasted for 30 days. They concluded that a monthly walk in the woods could help people maintain a higher level of protective NK activity and perhaps even have a preventive effect on cancer generation and progression.

Qing Li, Ph.D., the assistant pro- fessor leading several of these studies, suggests that dense forest areas are more effective at boosting immunity than city parks and gardens. He also reports that phytoncide concentra- tions increase during summer grow- ing seasons and decrease during the winter, although they are still present in tree trunks even when the trees are deciduous.

Li further suggests that walks in the woods should be conducted at a leisurely pace. For stress reduction, he suggests four hours of walking, covering a generous 3 miles, or 2 hours walking about 1.5 miles. For cancer-protecting effects, he suggests regularly spending three days and two nights in a forested area.

“Carry water and drink when

you’re thirsty,” says Li. “Find a place that pleases you and sit and enjoy the scenery.” He adds that relaxing in a hot tub or spa counts as a perfect end to a day of forest bathing. Li foresees a future in which patients diagnosed with high blood pressure or hypertension may re- ceive a forest bathing prescription, but counsels that shinrin-yoku is

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