While vacationing recently in Puerto Rico, I visited El Yunque National Park which contains the only the rainforest within the National Park system. El Yunque encompasses 4,000-foot mountain peaks, numerous streams, rivers and waterfalls within a vast, tropical, evergreen rainforest. Other than its southern location, the park offers a fair equivalent of the Adirondack experience.
Over the peaks, I saw such familiar northern species such as broadwing and redtailed hawks soaring on the thermals. The journey provided a most unique reprieve after spending several days in the urbanity of the crowded, sprawling city of San Juan.
My perspective changed as I entered a forest filled with new and unique sounds, scents and freshness. I could feel an overall sense of relief, that same type of calmness that comes after a hike or a paddle at home.
Later, back at our hotel, I found an interesting article in Men's Health magazine that may explain why I felt that way.
The article began, "You may finally have a legitimate reason to hug a tree. A hike in the woods can boost your immunity, say Japanese researchers. They found that men who walked through a forest for a total of 6 hours over 2 days experienced a 46 percent spike in their blood levels of natural killer cells, which are part of your body's SWAT team against invading viruses. Apparently, all trees release airborne chemicals called phytoncides that not only protect their foliage from microbes, but also help to stimulate our own immunity systems."
In the thick green forest, trees emit phytoncides to kill germs and protect from various molds and bacteria. Coniferous trees emit more Phytoncides than broad-leaved trees.
This concept was revealed in this recent exchange among sportsmen. I knew an old timer who grew or collected much of the food he ate. Beside doing it because he was a depression-era skinflint, he used to say, "The plants I grow in my garden or collect in the woods have to fight the same vermin, [bacteria, molds, viruses] that I do - the ones that live around here. They've developed immunities over hundreds of years to survive, so when I eat them I get the benefit of that evolution."
The Japanese have taken a lead in quantifying the science behind the effects of taking a walk in the forest, which they identify as "forest bathing." The concept has nothing to do with taking an actual bath in the woods, but rather by being 'bathed' by the benefits of the woodland environment.
Recent scientific studies have proven that a walk in the woods has measurable positive effects on human health and well-being. It can boost immune systems and reduce stress. Based on these findings, several government agencies are now promoting the concept of "forest therapy."
Dr. Miyazaki of Japan's Chiba University, a leading scholar on forest medicine has conducted numerous physiological experiments to examine why forests make people feel so at ease.
"Humans have lived in nature for 5 million years. We were made to fit a natural environment. So we feel stress in an urban area," Miyazaki explained. "When we are exposed to nature, our bodies go back to how they should be."
Forests gratify the five senses by providing the sounds of birds, cool air, green leaves, the touch of trees, wild plants and grasses.
"The atmosphere of forests makes people calm," he explained. Known as "Shinrinyoku" in Japan, many countries, including Korea, Germany, Switzerland and Denmark are now studying the effects of forests and promoting the concept of forest therapy.
Studies have shown that there are other positive affects of forest therapy beyond relaxation. In their experiments, Japanese scientists uncovered hard evidence that walking in the forest decreases the blood glucose levels of diabetic patients, and that people who view forest scenery for 20 minutes have a 13 percent lower blood concentration of the stress hormone cortisol than people viewing urban settings. They have revealed that people living in areas with a higher percentage of forest cover had lower mortality rates for cancers of the lung, breast, uterus, prostate, kidney, and colon, compared with people living in areas with lighter forest cover, even after factoring in socioeconomic status.
While further research certainly is necessary, the scientific community is finally verifying what outdoor travelers have long understood: A walk in the woods is always good for you!
Joe Hackett is a guide and sportsman residing in Ray Brook. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org