You thought it was about a bunch of eccentrics hugging trees ? Well, not quite! It is a therapeutic practice that allows you to reap the benefits of nature, especially the benefits provided by hardwoods. The media often does describe this process as “tree hugging”. But in reality, it’s not necessary. All you need to do is go for a walk in the forest, to feel its many physical and psychological benefits.

In Japan, sylvotherapy (Shinrin Yoku) has existed for centuries, however, it was only after scientific studies were carried out in the 1990s that it was recognised as a relaxation technique in its own right, falling perfectly within the philosophy of preventive medicine.

Today it’s even a discipline which can be studied. In Europe and in the United States, sylvotherapy is becoming increasingly popular! Meetings are organised in the forest, where people literally embrace the trees, hence the clichés that can be found all over the web

The benefits

Sylvotherapy offers many benefits. It lowers the blood pressure as well as blood sugar levels, which is of particular interest to people with diabetes. It strengthens the immune system and reduces stress (which we now know is the enemy of health). People suffering from exhaustion or depression experience considerable improvements in their mental health. There is a soothing effect on the mind and the ability to focus on the here and now is strengthened, producing a feeling of well-being.

Why start doing it ?

The answer is simple: to take care of your health! And yet, although it is within everyone’s reach, too few take the time to enjoy it. During our everyday lives, we can forget to slow down and breathe. Once we’ve juggled work, our social lives, family, and sport … we simply run out of time. When stress takes over, your nervous system produces adrenalin and cortisol and increases the acidity in the joints, which is chronically bad for the body.

In the forest, simply breathing allows us to become aware of certain smells and molecules. As a result, the nerves in the body send signals to the hypothalamus (central part of the brain), stimulating the production of dopamine and endorphins. Instead of being subjected to cortisol and adrenaline, which come from the adrenal glands, the brain takes over and produces what are called “happy hormones”. Stress is released, giving way to inner well-being.

To get a better understanding of this, you have to understand that trees emit many substances; in particular, volatile molecules which produced to protect themselves from bacteria and attract pollinating insects. When the sun rises, the foliage opens and releases phytoncides and terpenes into the air. We absorb them through the pores of our skin, as well as along the olfactory tract (when we breathe in). These chemical messengers directly reach the receptors of our central nervous system, as previously explained.

Exercises

Stop for a moment to stimulate your senses. Touch bark and moss, walk barefoot, listen to sounds, notice smells, and take a closer look at trees. The idea is to focus on specific characteristics of the forest and let the thousand thoughts of everyday life gradually fade away, giving way to tranquillity. In addition to using your senses, there are a wide variety of creative activities that you can do, alone or with a guide, to soothe you.

Did you know?

Did you know that there are two forms of sylvotherapy ? The “shower” and the “treatment”. The shower involves walking in the forest for two hours, whereas the “treatment” is an immersion for a whole weekend, for example.

Did you know that walking barefoot in the forest is very good for you?
It put us into contact with Mycobacterium Vaccae, a bacterium recently discovered in the soil. This bacterium activates the brain and produces serotonin, a hormone involved in regulating our mood, libido, social behaviour, and sleep. It also produces dopamine, the famous neurotransmitter that provides a feeling of happiness and satisfaction!

Did you know that trees are very sociable beings ? As strange as it might seem, some trees communicate with each other via their roots to exchange molecules.

Did you know that sylvotherapy was already popular in the 19th century ? In an act of rebellion against the consumerist society of the 19th century, the American writer Henry David Thoreau fled to live in the forest. From there, he wrote, among other things, the beautiful book Walden or Life in the Woods.

By: Marie Laval
Illustration : Sandy Dauneau