22nd August, 2019

Back To The Forest

By Max Kirsten
Back To The Forest

Become more connected to nature to improve your sleep. Latest research confirms what most of us already know, that when we get outside we become happier and more positive people. Getting closer to nature with eco-therapy is showing extraordinary results for wellness, well-being, and also helps you to re-discover how to sleep better.

Simply by being in nature, can be the antidote for all the negative effects from fast modern life.

‘Imagine how amazing a few days at Forest Holidays could be,” the advert reads… ‘Surround yourself with nature in an eco-sensitive cabin in the heart of some the world’s most beautiful forests. Wonder in the woods, and even unwind your very own hot tub.’

The Japanese word for the healing way of the forest is ‘Shinrin-yoku’, forest therapy, the medicine of simply being in the forest, Shinrin-yoku is a term that means “taking in the atmosphere of the forest” or ‘forest bathing’. This was developed in Japan during the 1980s and has become the cornerstone of preventative health care and healing in Japanese medicine. Forest medicine is using nature to heal yourself.

Interestingly, the ancient Japanese religion called ‘Shinto’, which believes that the spirits are not separate from nature, they are actually within it.  

This modern approach of immersing yourself in woodland ‘without your phone’, in order to heal your body and mind, has expanded into the West. It seems that now in greater numbers middle-class families are acquiring plots of land in woodland, so that they can interact with nature in their own retreats at the weekend. In Sweden you can take up residence in isolated glasshouses that measure just large enough to put a double bed in a glass box. No electronics, usually situated by a river or a lake in a forest. In the middle of wild countryside and thousands of lakes, you can visit and experience a dramatic physiological shift as you immersively enter the natural world, as your stress level drop by 70% after just three days, and studies have shown that lifestyle close to nature can improve well-being.

Dr Cecilia Stenfors has been awarded a three-year grant from the Swedish Research Council to study the role of environmental and biological factors in reducing stress levels and fatigue. “A lot of people spend a great amount of their wake time indoors and detached from natural environments, which prevents them from the benefits that contact with nature can have on wellbeing and performance,” she says. “Research has been consistent in showing that even brief contact with nature for short moments — or even exposure to nature-like stimuli — can improve one’s mood by increasing positive emotions and decreasing negative emotions and thoughts, and make people feel more relaxed and de-stressed.”

Many studies have found that everything from the soundscape of water and birdsong to woody and grassy scents improve our sense of wellbeing, but Stenfors says that “real nature seems to have greater effects than artificial nature” — so you can turn off your smartphone’s birdsong app and listen to real nature. Benefits include “improvements in mental performance, such as working memory” and tasks with high demands on “executive or focused attention”.

A 2015 study looked at brain scans of people who had taken either a 90-minute walk in a natural environment or an urban environment. Those who went on a nature stroll not only felt better but had decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with the rumination of negative thought.

We become happier and more positive people if we get outside in the sunlight.

The irony is that most of us spend less time than ever in tune with our natural surroundings. Totting up the time you are cocooned within four walls with a roof above your head can be a wake-up call. A survey of 1,000 adults found that they spent, on average, only 8 per cent of their weekdays — less than two hours — outside. Last year another poll revealed that three quarters of UK children spend less time outside than prison inmates.

Even small changes can bring huge effects.

Some doctors are now taking the concept of eco-therapy seriously, prescribing outdoor activity — and that’s everything from a walk to a bit of gardening — as a means of improving mild to moderate depression. “Our own findings suggest that 94 per cent of adults felt that nature benefited their mental health,” he says. “Its effects are indisputable.”

Sue Waite, an associate professor of education and a researcher at Plymouth University. :“For the mildly depressed, regular exposure to the outdoors and in sociable groups was a viable alternative to taking a pill to raise mood as it provided a real boost.”

Waite says that research suggests that 30 to 60 minutes spent outdoors is a good dosage for mood boosting, but for a serious detox, a 72-hour get-away is optimal. But you don’t have to head for snow-capped mountains or pine forests — even a trip to your local park or municipal golf cause can do you good. “Our aim should be to reintroduce nature to our lives as much as we can,” she says. “Stress hormones, such as cortisol, plummet when we are outside with nature; happy hormones, such as serotonin, are enhanced. We become happier and more positive people if we get outside.”

So whether you visit a luxury sleep retreat to learn how to optimize your sleep, and to relax and unwind, or you explore ways to get ‘closer to nature’, one thing is for sure, these ideas are food for thought, and we can dream about, finding a wonderful place to get closer to nature.

Get 100% sleep optimised by re-connecting with nature. Photo by Christian Regg

As always, I wish you a great night’s sleep.

Max Kirsten aka The Sleep Coach