Painting by Marguerite Jill Dye
by Marguerite Jill Dye
Vermonters and fellow nature lovers know the power our magnificent mountains, forests, and woods have on our wellbeing. If I hadn’t experienced nature’s healing effect myself, I may not have understood the forest’s curative energies on the human immune system.
Years ago, after travels in Turkey and Greece, I arrived in Austria to attend a University of Graz summer program. Austria has always reminded me of Vermont, and Graz is the sister city of my hometown, Montclair, N.J. But I’d taken ill after Istanbul with a very sore throat, high fever, and chills. A kind young mother I met on the tram took me to her home for a traditional cure. After a nap and cups of hot tea, she led me outside into the cool forest. While she and her children picked wild blueberries, I rested under a pine tree. Little did I realize how quickly breathing in the moist forest air would help me heal and regain my strength. But the science became clear when I heard an interview on Sounds True (soundstrue.com) with Austrian biologist Clemens Arvay from the University of Graz.
We are eco-psychosomatic beings, according to Arvay, author of “The Biophilia Effect: A Scientific and Spiritual Exploration of the Healing Bond Between Humans and Nature.” Biophilia is the love of and our interconnectedness with nature. In the 1960s, German-American psychoanalyst Eric Fromm wrote that humans have a biophilic force in our psyche that connects us with other species and creates a desire to be close to nature. He said that our biophilic force creates a flow that keeps us healthy, but when we are disconnected from nature, we become ill.
Since then, Arvay said, much progress has been made in the field. In 2013, studies were published that measured the increase in human immune system function from breathing in terpenes in the forest air. Terpenes are the complex biochemical compounds that are released by trees and plants and that have a healing effect on the human body. They rise dramatically in April and May and peak in June and August. After spending just one day in a forest, the “natural killer cells” in a person’s blood increase by 40 percent and their activity increases too. They work to eliminate bacteria and viruses as an important part of the immune system.
There is also evidence that breathing in terpenes increases anti-cancer proteins perforin, granulysin, and “granzymes,” which attack existing tumor cells and dangerous cells that may lead to cancer. Terpenes not only improve our immune system function but also protect us from heart attacks by increasing the body’s production of DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), according to Japanese studies published in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine. A Korean study also found a significant decrease in depression.
Another Japanese study determined that terpenes distributed overnight through vaporizers in hotel rooms also had a therapeutic effect on the body’s immune system, although not to the same degree as exposure to the millions of terpenes in nature.
The Ulrich study in Sweden and Denmark proved that seeing a tree through a hospital window shortened hospital stays and reduced complications and medication (including pain meds). The tree view activates the parasympathetic nervous system of regeneration and growth and the vagus nerve, causing balance and calm. Seeing a photograph or painting of nature or hearing the sounds of nature also have a calming effect that decreases the stress hormone cortisol in the blood.
The opposite is true, as well. Stressful, noisy, city life switches our reptilian brains into fight or flight mode. Seeking out parks and pockets of nature in the city, growing potted trees, house plants, and rooftop gardens, are especially important to provide balance and relief.
This connection between the psychological, physical, and ecological is a new science called ecopsychosomatics. It recognizes the human organism’s interconnectedness with the natural world.
“Forest bathing,” which I introduced in Mountain Meditation last year, is an ancient Chinese healing art called “Senlinyu” that began 2,500 years ago with qi gong and tai chi, to heal and increase “chi” energy. In the 1980s, “Shinrin-yoku” was studied in Japan and has become a popular healing technique.
Next week we’ll further explore ecopsychosomatics and the field of plant sociology, which includes the other main function of terpenes: to enable communication within and between communities of trees.
Marguerite Jill Dye is an artist and writer who divides her time between Vermont and Florida’s Gulf Coast.