Discovering Health and Happiness Through Forest Bathing: A Journey into Shinrin Yoku

by | Aug 2, 2023

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Synopsis

In this episode of The Modern Vital Podcast, the focus is on the Japanese practice of Shinrin yoku, or forest bathing. And the special guest is Dr. Cyndi Gilbert, a naturopathic doctor and author of the book, “Forest Bathing: Discovering Health and Happiness Through the Japanese Practice of Shinrin Yoku.” Dr. Cyndi shares insights into the concept of forest bathing, which involves immersing oneself in nature, connecting with living things, and finding health and happiness in the process. Forest bathing is not a new idea and has been a part of indigenous cultures for ages. The practice has numerous benefits for physical and mental health, from improved immune system activity to reduced stress and better cognitive performance.

Dr. Cyndi emphasizes the importance of spending time outdoors and being surrounded by nature for better well-being. She discusses individualized prescriptions and suggests aiming for at least two hours of outdoor time per week. The episode also delves into the healing properties of nature, such as essential oils from trees that improve breathing and reduce inflammation. Dr. Cyndi encourages listeners to reconnect with the land, acknowledging that forest bathing can be a form of stewardship, leading to a more respectful and healthy relationship with the environment and its inhabitants.

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Thank you for joining us on The Modern Vital Podcast. Your support means the world to us, and we hope you continue to find value in the information we provide. Please remember to subscribe, leave a review, and share our podcast with others who might benefit from this content. Until next time, stay informed and proactive in your pursuit of health and wellness!

Complete Transcript of Episode 13339698

Dr. Ben: On today’s episode of The Modern Vital Podcast, our topic is the Japanese practice of Shinrin yoku, or forest bathing and today’s special guest is Dr. Cyndi Gilbert, naturopathic doctor in Toronto, Canada, and author of the book, Forest Bathing: Discovering Health and Happiness Through the Japanese Practice of Shinrin Yoku, published by St. Martin’s press. 

In addition, Dr. Cyndi is associate editor of CANDJ, the index peer-reviewed journal of the Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors, and the chair of the Ontario Association of Naturopathic Doctors. And when not working. Dr. Cyndi can often be found gardening, hiking, camping, canoeing, traveling, forest bathing, and just generally being outside in nature.

Welcome to the show, Dr. Cyndi. 

Dr. Cyndi: Thank you so much, Dr. Ben, for having me. It’s great to be here. And I, you know, even though I’m inside, it’s helpful to be talking about things outside and even appreciating the Monstera beside you, and doing that plant appreciation, even when we’re indoors. 

Dr. Ben: Not sure the guests can see the Monstera behind me, but thank you so much.

Well, I’m, I’m so excited to have you here. I mean, forest bathing, uh, what is that? 

Dr. Cyndi: Yeah, I mean, so first bathing is kind of exactly what it sounds like, but so that you’re bathing or basking, maybe might be a better term in the forest, you, you know, definitely is something where you’re just immersing yourself in in the bush, in nature, in woods, in green spaces.

And it’s not a new idea at all. It is, you know, this term forest bathing was coined by the Japanese government in 1982. The idea of spending time outside connecting with, you know, other living things in the world or hanging out in the woods, uh, is, is nothing too new to any human or to, uh, other non-human animals as it were, um, because of those important connections that we have for both our health and happiness, which is, uh, you know, what brought me to, to write more about it. 

Um, but obviously as a naturopathic doctor, uh, it’s something that I talk to my patients about almost every single visit is, you know, are they spending time outside? Are they stuck indoors staring at a computer screen like we’re doing right now? And how much time do they have that and how important or not important it is to them and how I can encourage them to do more of it because it is so great for our health. 

Dr. Ben: Wow. It just, it seems like such a way to feed several birds with one seed, uh, you know, it’s, it’s like we, we give out so many, or I should say I give out so many different treatments that are detoxifying, you know, um, lower one’s exposure to electromagnetic fields from cell phones and, uh, you know, drink more water, um, get in an infrared sauna, et cetera.

But it seems like, okay. Being in the forest could be a way of doing like 50 things at once. 

Dr. Cyndi: And that’s definitely it. I mean, because you are surrounded by so many other living things that do have healing properties that, you know, you are going to have cleaner air. Especially if you’re in a more forested environment, whatever your words are for that, whether it’s, you know, going out to the woods or the forest or the bush, and other people I’m sure have other ways of framing it, but there is also all of the, you know, essential oils that trees produce, especially the conifers or, phytoncides, which is a fancy term for the similar idea that actually, you know, help us to breathe better, reduce inflammation, reduce stress load.

And there’s so much research just on being in those green spaces that has an impact on almost every aspect of our health from our hearts to our immune system, to our respiratory system, to our cortisol levels and blood sugar, and even just the way we connect with other people, which I find so fascinating, and the way we connect with the environment.

So, those strategies you’re talking about, you know, it’s almost like you can get double duty if you do them outside. One of my favorite kind of pieces of research is looking at forest bathing and how people are more likely, even if they just spend their time sitting on a park bench in the middle of an urban center, that they’re more likely to over time actually start moving their body more in that space than they would if they spent the same amount of time sitting in a gym or an office or any other indoor environment, and they actually then engage in more physical movement and exercise.

As a result of being in that space, it’s also, you know, just so much better for our eye health to be outside and be able to kind of look at longer distances, look around, check out what we’re seeing, notice things, and engage just naturally in curiosity and mindfulness without even thinking about it, without tuning on to like a guided meditation.

You know, it just is something that happens to us when we’re outside because we are, you know, looking around, perceiving, observing, and just being present in n ourselves in the moment. 

Dr. Ben: So what, what is your typical prescription? I mean, do you recommend being in, in nature 10 minutes a day or half an hour or just find what you can or, or like, what do you tell your patients?

Dr. Cyndi: Yeah, I mean, I told them to find whatever they can. I usually because I’m like, I think most naturopathic doctors are really keen on like individualized prescriptions. So we kind of talk about how they can incorporate it for them. The research says, you know, if you can do two hours total in a week of being outside, that that’s a good amount of time.

You know, there’s obviously like, increased dose responses with higher amounts. But two hours is a reasonable amount of time. It seems like a lot if you think about it in one chunk, but that could just be like a walk in on the weekend. Um, but it could be, you know, taking a different route. Because I’m in an urban center, sometimes it’s, you know, getting off a couple of stops early off of the subway or the bus or the streetcar and walking through city park, for 15, 20 minutes once a day.

And those things add up, but it really is trying to figure out, you know, what’s the best thing for each individual person.

Dr. Ben: Before our talk, I was combing through some of the research and it’s just amazing. I mean, how you mentioned, you harken to it a little bit, about how it impacts virtually every system in our bodies, neuro endocrine indexes, immune indexes, cardiovascular, you name it.

One that I find really interesting is how it significantly appears to bump our natural killer cells and increase them in our bodies, you know, for a prolonged period for several weeks, perhaps. I don’t know how long one has to be in the forest to have their natural killer cells go up. Do you? 

Dr. Cyndi: Yeah, well, there is a fair bit of research on it.

And most of those studies again came out of Japan, where they actually measured things like natural killer cells amongst other immune markers. And you know, it’s hard to tell whether or not like what’s exactly responsible. Is it the time outside? Is it these phytoncides from conifer trees, in particular, in those essential oils that kind of stimulate something in the immune system to produce more natural killer cells: In most of the research studies, they spent only a couple of hours outside, for once a week or sometimes like a few days in a row. And then they would notice these extended periods of time, one week, two weeks, even six weeks of increased immune system activity.

So, you know, I always just take that and say, okay, well, if that’s true, then why wouldn’t we just encourage everyone to do that more frequently, right? You could go out for, you know, once a month, for a weekend, um, as another alternative to get like a larger amount of time, obviously in a safe way that works for that person.

But any ways that we can do that, you know, is going to have those longer term impacts on our immune system, activity and ability to respond. And, you know, it really is kind of neat because I think about the way that, you know, that other systems outside…how the trees talk to each other, how the mycelial networks underground are working, how that nutrition is shared.

And it’s almost like we become more aware of our place within that ecosystem when we engage in forest bathing so that we too can benefit from all of the other living things in our environment and, you know, help us all to be healthier. Both the trees helping us to be healthier because we’re breathing, maybe it’s because we’re breathing cleaner air. Maybe it’s because we’re getting more vitamin D and that’s having an immune response. Maybe, you know, it is because we feel connected and not so alone, right? Cause there’s lots of research on how, even if you go out by yourself into green space, that you’re less likely to feel down, depressed, hopeless, more likely to feel engaged and more likely to feel focused and be able to perform better on a cognitive level, even that, you know, all of these things play together. And the reverse is also true, which is what I find fascinating. You know, it’s better for our immune system, for our blood pressure, as you said, cardiovascularly, blood pressure goes down with forest bathing, and HRV, heart rate variability goes up, which is another marker for how relaxed we are, let’s say, or the opposite of stress.

But as much as we spend time outside and those, you know, green spaces are benefiting us. We in turn are also kind of taking care and noticing and becoming more environmentalist, as it were, a little bit more like a treehugger, if not literally doing that while we’re forest bathing, and at least having more care for the rest of those connections as well.

Dr. Ben: This really gets into the roots of naturopathic medicine and I know a lot of the forebearers were having people walk in streams barefoot and walking barefoot on the grass and, and, um, all the things, I mean, and then of course all the indigenous societies that have propagated this way of, this relating to nature for millennia. What an amazing way to kind of connect to the roots of this medicine and then also, appreciate all the differen tributaries that it’s come from.

Dr. Cyndi: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s so much there that’s like, really important. I think, you know, for us who are like, who are naturopathic doctors or naturopathic physicians, depending on where you are, that who are really engaged with us on a one on one level. And as you said, like, the history of the medicine really is around.

Some of those very core nature cure experiences or nature exposure experiences or nature therapy to use a different word of just being outside experiencing green and blue, like the mix of the hydrotherapy with the nature exposure. And it really is at the root of the medicine. It’s why, part of the reason I was so drawn to naturopathic medicine, was because of that relationship and because of my own personal experiences in life of feeling healthier and more connected when I spent time with the cedar, and that’s something I talk about in the book. My experience with the cedar hedges in the backyard of my very suburban childhood home, that that was a place where I found solace, a place where I felt connected, where I felt at ease, where I could feel relaxed, even though sometimes my indoor house was not the most relaxing place or happy place to be. And I think that to me ties really nicely into, you know, kind of this stewardship piece that you’re talking about.

Um, you know, that this is something that’s been important throughout history, that indigenous peoples at least, on Turtle Island, I’m very grateful to the stewardship that, that they have. They have always held on the land and with their relations or with our relations.

And as a settler myself, I’m not an Indigenous person, you know. I think about both for myself and for patients, you know, the way that people I work with have been displaced from the land or displaced from their homes, from their land in different ways and how that’s impacted their health and how that we can use potentially forest bathing or some of these park prescriptions, or however you want to word it to, but it, actually its impact to reintegrate, to invite people to be part of those spaces again, and to use the land as a source of healing, of reconnection and of reconciliation.

Dr. Ben: That’s really powerful. I hadn’t really thought about how forest bathing is actually a way of taking care and stewarding the land. It is more like, I was thinking of a way, it’s a way of being in it and getting something from it, but it’s actually what you’re bringing up. That’s a way of giving back as well and being present, and taking care.

Dr. Cyndi: Yeah, it’s almost like an opportunity to reconnect to the soil, where your own ancestors have once stood or where other ancestors have stood, to think about the power and strength of relationship to earth and trees and water and plants and sky and to kind of work towards those like safe, respectful, healthy relationships to land and the people who live on it or the people whose territory it is that we’re on.

So for me, it can be that more stewardship experience as well, which, you know, also has health impacts for us as we engage with that work. 

Dr. Ben: Well, thank you so much for, you know, hopping on here. Where can people find you online? I know your book’s available on Amazon and all the places. But where can people learn more about you and the work you do? 

Dr. Cyndi: Yeah, I mean, people can find my book pretty much everywhere books are sold for sure, but to contact me or, or visit with me, you can always check out my own website at cyndigilbert.ca, and on most social media, I’m at DrCyndiND.

Dr. Ben: Well, thanks so much, Dr. Cyndi. 

And that concludes today’s episode of The Modern Vital Podcast. We would love to hear from you. We value your feedback. If you have any questions or concerns or suggestions, please reach out to me at ben@modernvital.com. And also please leave us a review. If you enjoyed this episode on Spotify or Apple, we look forward to having you join us next week for another exciting episode of The Modern Vital Podcast. 

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About Me

Dr. Ben Reebs, ND, is an award-winning, naturopathic physician with a focus in environmental medicine, which looks at how environmental factors can cause chronic disease. He specializes in chronic infections, autoimmune disease, and digestive health.

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