(NaturalNews) Soon doctors may advise their patients, ``Take a walk in the woods!`` And patients may use outdoor clinics to get check-ups, a service now available in Japan. Research into the benefits of a walk in the woods has convinced the Japanese that forests should be therapy centers. This is called ``shinrin yoku`` or forest bathing. Forest bathing means to become immersed in a forest or natural environment much the same as taking a conventional bath.
In 2004, a study of the physiological effects of forest bathing was initiated by the Forestry Agency of Japan, the Forest and Forest Products Research Institute, and Nippon Medical School. A report prepared by Dr. Qing Li, assistant professor of the Department of Hygiene and Public Health, Nippon Medical Center, showed that walking in a forest activates natural killer (NK) cells, a type of cell known to attack cancer cells, and increases three types of anti-cancer proteins.
Dr. Li explained that plants produce air borne chemicals called phytoncides as protection against rotting and insects. Inhaling phytoncides results in increased NK cells in humans.
Dr. Li followed 12 men aged 37 to 55 who reported high levels of stress. Walking in a forest over a period of three days, their NK cell activity increased 26.5 percent the first day and 52.6 percent on the second.
Aside from the effect of phytoncides, the scents encountered in natural environments, the sounds of creeks and rivers, the sight of grass and flowers, and the sun shining through leaves, all have a calming effect, said Yoshifumi Miyazaki, director of the Center for Environment Health and Field Sciences at Chiba University.
Japan`s leading scholar in forest medicine, Miyazaki found that salivary cortisol, a stress hormone, was 13.4 percent lower in people who looked at forest scenery. ``We were made to fit a natural environment,`` Miyazaki concluded. ``When we are exposed to nature, our bodies go back to what they should be.``
The Akazawa Natural Recreation Forest in Agematsu, where the concept of forest bathing originated in 1982, was officially recognized as a forest therapy base in 2006. A forest therapy base typically has walking trails, health programs, and guided walks.
There are also free medical check-ups held outdoors under the trees.