The benefits of forest bathing explained by Marco Nieri
Immersion in greenery to forget stress and help strengthen our immune system: at this time of year the luxuriant green of the trees in Oasi Zegna can be friendly to our health. The Forest Bathing experience guided by Marco Nieri on 22-23 July will be an opportunity to discover the therapeutic power of trees.
Thanks to a project launched by Fondazione Zegna in 2014, Marco Nieri and Marco Mencagli have scientifically demonstrated how the beech woods in Oasi Zegna can positively stimulate the immune system and reduce stress levels. To find out more about their studies we interviewed Marco Nieri.
In what ways can trees be beneficial to our health?
Trees play a vitally important role in the lives of all living things, from many points of views. In medical culture a little over a century ago there was still the conviction that closeness to and contact with trees could provide sustenance for the body and the psyche. A vision handed down over the centuries from ancient cultures that saw trees as seats of divine creatures and forces capable of interacting with humans in various ways. Today is it widely held that being in contact with nature is good for us, and especially in places rich in trees and plants. New scientific studies over the last 30 years have added to our knowledge and enabled us to understand that there are certain places and situations in which nature is highly beneficial. Certain new valences and potentialities have now been attributed to nature, and to trees and green spaces in particular. If people are informed of these, they can enjoy considerable benefits in terms of wellbeing and deepen their understanding of our relationship with the vegetable world.
Can you give us some examples?
Nature-mind-body interaction was the object of much study in North America at the end of the last century, but also in Northern Europe, and especially on the action of the landscape in the treatment of stress (therapeutic landscape). And in the last ten years Japanese researchers have discovered that certain volatile substances emitted by trees, the monoterpenes, can act positively on the human organism and our immune system. They have thus defined a very useful practice for preventive medicine - forest bathing - that is becoming increasingly well known in Japan, the Far East, the USA and Northern Europe. The studies I’ve carried out are showing, with diagnostic tests, that the weak bio-electromagnetic fields produced by trees can act, in close vicinity, on our organism’s energetic and physiological states and that it’s possible to deliberately use this interaction for our wellbeing, thus endorsing ancient empirical knowledge (bioenergetic landscape). A walk in the woods therefore offers psychological, emotional and sensory benefits, but in certain conditions it can also physically stimulate the organism and strengthen our immune system.
How does forest bathing actually work? How can it be useful in preventive medicine?
Known in Japan as “Shinrin Yoku” (literally “take in the atmosphere of the forest”), this practice was scientifically recognized when university researchers were able to verify that in forests with certain biological characteristics there is a concentration of volatile aromatic substances (monoterpenes), emanated by tree leaves in particular. It’s been demonstrated, also by in vitro experiments, that these not always “smellable” substances can stimulate the activity and reproduction of NK lymphocytes, which kill viruses and tumors. Forest bathing helps strengthen the immune system, whose effects are prolonged over time, but also reduce cortisol and adrenaline levels (anti-stress action) and normalize heart rate and blood pressure. All this plays a highly important role in preventing diseases.
How often and for how long should one do forest bathing to enjoy these benefits?
To manage to stimulate the activity and numerical growth of the cells in our immune system we should breathe forest air naturally enriched with monoterpenes for a certain time, thus enabling the organism to absorb the minimum quantity of these substances needed to cause an increase in its immune potential and overall state of health. The practice of forest bathing is based on a precise protocol verified by Japanese experts, which requires a total of at least 11-12 hours walking and resting in woodland over three consecutive days. Studies show that in this way the operation of the immune system is augmented by up to 40-50%, with effects that can last for over a month. If we only have one day available, a single “immersion” in the woods of at least four consecutive hours is enough to gain clear health benefits, albeit more limited on an immune level, and still perceptible up to week later.
What unique characteristics do Oasi Zegna’s woodlands have for facilitating the practice of forest bathing?
For some years now my agronomist colleague Marco Mencagli and I have been working on the Japanese studies and the relevant literature to try to understand if and how European woodlands and forest species are suitable for forest bathing, a practice originating in analyses conducted in environments with different vegetation characteristics. In the Mediterranean region we’ve seen that certain tree species emit a high level of monoterpenes, among which the beech is one of the most “emissive”. Then, thanks to Fondazione Zegna, we carried out a study in the Oasi Zegna beech woods and found that monoterpene emission here is higher even than the levels typical of the woodland studied in Japan. So we devised three looping routes of different lengths enabling people to successfully follow the protocol described for this technique. During the 22-23 July sessions, the forest bathing experience will be accompanied by yoga.
Could you describe for us what type of practice will be done during the day and how yoga can extend the benefits of forest bathing?
On the walks we’ll stop at a number of forest bathing points, mainly to do some breathing exercises (pranayama) to increase our respiration capacity. A few simple exercises will make us aware of how we breathe, of how most of us don’t fully exploit our pulmonary capacity, and how, by giving more time to the two phases of respiration, we can immediately benefit: the nervous system regains equilibrium, all our physiological functions are stimulated, the mind is more lucid and we feel more at one with ourselves. Given that forest bathing is based mainly on inhalation of volatile substances easily absorbed by the pulmonary mucosa, boosting respiration favors the natural process whereby our organism takes in beneficial substances. All this restores us to a state of harmony.
You recently had a new book published by Sperling & Kupfer - “La terapia segreta degli trees” (The secret therapy of trees). What’s it about?
Written by Marco Mencagli and myself, the book is the fruit of many years of research and applications. It’s the first work to describe the state of the art so that people can get maximum benefit from nature and green spaces in general. In it, we describe the various ways in which trees, plants and the rest of nature are good for our health, and we provide detailed information on techniques for getting the most out of these advantages, both outdoors, in woods and forests, and at home and in the office. We look at how contemporary humans are suffering because of their increasing detachment from nature, and how to recover this contact: forest bathing, therapeutic landscape, bioenergetic landscape and green office… it’s a book that everyone who is attracted by the regenerative power of nature should read, to help themselves and others improve their health… the green way.
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