Shutterstock

Hard science is finally backing up centuries of aromatherapy wisdom.

Researchers have been racking up evidence that when you can’t take a break and get into nature itself, looking at photos of it relaxes our brains in a similar way. Now, scientists in Tokyo are building a case that smelling nature — the bracing scent of forest pine or cypress, for instance — lowers our blood pressure dramatically and increases anti-cancer molecules in our bloodstreams.

For the past eight years, Qing Li, an immunologist in the department of hygiene and public health at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School, has been studying phytoncides, the essential oils and aerosols emitted by plants and trees, and their salutary effects on the human body. Studies had shown that nature visits reduce stress on the nervous system, overloaded as it is in the modern urban environment with its dense living conditions, industrial-grade fumes, and honking horns. Li’s early work showed that walks in the woods boosted natural killer immune cells that helped fight infection and cancer; eventually, he came to suspect that it was the natural scents of evergreens and other trees that did the bulk of the work.

While testing his theory — by sequestering subjects in hotel rooms, some with the benefit of cypress aromatherapy, some without; those who sniffed the phytoncides experienced significant drops in stress hormones and boosted immune cell activity — Li and others founded a Japanese organization to study forest medicine more formally. A few years later, it went global as the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine; last year, it held its first international symposium on the research and trends on forest therapy worldwide. Following the lead of the Japanese in using phytoncide therapy and other facets of “forest bathing” to boost health are the Finns — led by Liisa Tyrväinen, the Finnish Forest Research Institute is conducting a multi-year research program on forests and human well-being — and the South Koreans, who are opening a new $140 million National Forest Therapy Center in 2014. The wisdom is old: get outside when you can; when you’re stressed, aromatherapy can help. But now the hard science is finally backing it up.

Top image: Pakhnyushcha/Shutterstock.com

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: bicyclists in Paris during a transit strike in December.
    Transportation

    Paris Mayor: It's Time for a '15-Minute City'

    In her re-election campaign, Mayor Anne Hidalgo says that every Paris resident should be able to meet their essential needs within a short walk or bike ride.

  2. Life

    Why Amsterdam May Clamp Down on Weed and Sex Work

    Proposals to ban cannabis for tourists and relocate the red-light district would dramatically reshape the city’s anything-goes image.

  3. animated illustration: cars, bikes, scooters and drones in motion.
    Transportation

    This City Was Sick of Tech Disruptors. So It Decided to Become One.

    To rein in traffic-snarling new mobility modes, L.A. needed digital savvy. Then came a privacy uproar, a murky cast of consultants, and a legal crusade by Uber.

  4. Equity

    There Are Far More Americans Without Broadband Access than Previously Thought

    The Federal Communications Commission says 21 million Americans lack high-speed internet access, but a new report says the actual figure is double that.

  5. photo: Cranes on the skyline in Oakland, California
    Life

    How to Make a Housing Crisis

    The new book Golden Gates details how California set itself up for its current affordability crunch—and how it can now help build a nationwide housing movement.

×