Skip to content

Mental health and the outdoors. Vitamin N for nature is good for what ails you

Forest bathing, pinenes, salicylic acid and 22 types of airborne molecules including lactones that have a resting, analgesic and anti-inflammatory effect are on Back Roads Bill's mind this week

During the pandemic, we have been encouraged to go outside. Many people may assume they should stay indoors, when in fact, they should stay apart.

This can be readily and responsibly done in the outdoors while benefiting from its many health-promoting attributes.

It is true when we spend time on the back roads we are more mindful of what we see, what we hear, what we smell, and what we feel. We can enjoy the positive effects of connecting to the environment at many levels of individual well-being.

Back Roads Bill checked in with two experts with different perspectives who promote the benefits of being with nature.

There are plenty of trees out there. Forest bathing is the latest health trend but what exactly is it, anyway?  

Translated from the Japanese term “shinrin-yoku,” forest bathing is also known as forest therapy. It’s kind of like hiking through the forest. It’s kind of like meditating amongst the trees. Yet it’s not exactly either.

Diana Beresford-Kroeger  is the first to write about the benefits of tree aerosols, she says “tree compounds are released like rockets into the air.”  

She has spoken at the annual Canadian Ecology Centre’s – Mattawa River Writers Festival. Diana is a world-recognized author, medical biochemist and botanist.  

She has a unique combination of western scientific knowledge and the traditional concepts of the ancient world. Diana was one of the first to conceptualize what forest therapy really is.

“Tree air is loaded with antibiotics, anti-inflammatory, agents antiseptics, antivirals, and analgesics," says Beresford-Kroeger.

“The COVID-19 pandemic will not end tomorrow. Vaccines, which will also put pressure on the virus to mutate further, will not reach the majority of the population until late summer or fall — if we are lucky," she says. "We are in for more anxious months, as we wait to know our collective fate."

The answer, she says, is simple: recalibrate your life, slow down and take advantage of nature’s bountiful remedies during a time of disquiet and unease.

When outdoors, she finds many tonics provided by nature. She likes, for example, to take a good forest bath.

“The ancient practise requires that you slowly walk among the pines for approximately 15 minutes while breathing deeply to oxygenate the lower regions of your lungs," she says. (Harvard University and Japanese scientist Dr. Qing Li recently invited Beresford-Kroeger to contribute to the International Handbook of Forest Therapy.)  

“The sun on the pines releases alpha and beta pinenes (aromatic compound). These pinenes go into your lungs and cross the barrier into your circulatory system, and from there boost your immune system."

She suggests sitting under a pine tree for 15 minutes, particularly one facing a body of water. Breathe deeply under its branches, and you’ll get a good dose of salicylic acid and 22 types of airborne molecules including lactones that have a resting, analgesic and anti-inflammatory effect on the body, she says.

Beresford-Kroeger said, “There’s a reason people feel good around a fire pit — at a COVID-safe distance of course nowadays. “If one puts a fresh evergreen bough — pine or hemlock — on top, she says, it releases alpha and beta pinenes and sterilizes the air and that is an added bonus.’Burning pine boughs, a custom at Indigenous funerals around the world, can help ease both depression and anxiety.”

More on Diana Beresford-Kroeger go to her website

Kris Abrams, a psychotherapist who promotes helping people live lives of meaning, connection and joy 'while being outside' branched into other areas of healthy gifts from the forest.

“I don't know of a better way to cope with COVID than spending time outside through ‘green exercise,’” Abrams says.

Spending time in nature, and exercising in nature are some of the most powerful ways to combat depression and loneliness that we know of.

But it matters how you do it. If you go for a run outside and your mind is running in circles about how awful everything is, and how terrible that person is who wasn't wearing a mask, you're not going to benefit as much.

But if you go outside with open arms, and ask for nature to help you. If you go outside and intentionally see and greet your friends and family in the trees, the clouds, the birds, the raindrops, and your mother on the Earth, you will not only survive these times, but you will thrive, she says.

"The pandemic has offered us a profound opportunity to transform our relationship with the natural world.”  

"When you’re alone in nature, or with a loving friend or group of people, you get sweet relief from sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, and all the other ways we oppress, stigmatize and belittle one another," Abrams adds.

On the contrary, nature displays incredible diversity in all her glory.

There are fat trees and skinny ones, short ones and tall ones. Within a single clump of yellow flowers, you might see a pink one and realize that it’s a mutation.

"In nature, we don’t say ‘How wrong! That flower is different; that tree is fat!’ Instead, we say, ‘How beautiful!’ This impacts us below the level of thought,” says Abrams.

She knows time slows down in nature.  

“Urgency, deadlines, and “clock time,” as measured by hours, minutes and seconds, melt away. Clocks teach us to abandon the natural rhythms of our bodies and the Earth and conform to a schedule rooted in our economic system.

"That creates a lot of stress.

"On the flip side, nature models a healthier pace of life.

"Trees and plants grow s – l – o – w – l – y. Deer graze calmly. Rabbits and squirrels scamper about, but that is their natural pace. Everyone is moving according to their natural rhythm, and you begin to do the same.”

Abrams says, “Nature models 'just enough' sustainability.

"Our culture teaches us that we never have enough. We strive to make more money, buy more things, and eat more delicious food.

"Mainstream culture also encourages us not to think about how this over-consumption affects others, such as the sweatshop labourers who make our clothes or the people and animals who depend on a climate in balance," Abrams says.

Nature is a sharp contrast to our culture, she adds.

“In contrast, ecosystems embody harmony and balance.

"Trees grow to a height that reflects the nutrients and water immediately available. Squirrels store the right amount of food to get them through the winter. (Imagine how absurd it would be if squirrels expected their collection of nuts to grow exponentially without any effort on their part – as we do with our investments!) Quietly witnessing this balance and harmony is like salve in the wound of over-consumption."

For more on Kris Abrams, go to her website

All of this is within Back Roads Bill’s thoughts.

Are we now going through a process of “re-naturing”? Could we be re-nurtured and more resilient as a result? 

It seems to be needed, especially for young people who have grown up in a zombie-apocalyptic entertainment culture, they need hope and positivity.  

Vitamin N stands for nature get a good dose of it. Spring is upon us, the outdoors beckons. Heed that call and you'll reap the physical and mental health benefits, on the back roads.