As one who lives in a wet climate near a forest, I’m lucky enough to enjoy the stimulating effect regularly. It may be intuitive that connecting to nature makes us happier, but science confirms it. Conservation society Nature Canada says scientists have demonstrated changes in brain activity and reduced rumination (negative thoughts associated with depression) after a walk in nature. And Canada’s National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health says time in nature improves mood by reducing stress and restoring attentiveness.
A 2007 study from the University of Essex in the U.K. found that as little as five minutes in a natural setting – whether in a park or gardening in one’s own back yard – improves mood, self-esteem and motivation, while a walk in the country reduces depression in 71 percent of participants.
In a later study, in 2010, Japanese researchers of shinrin-yoku, defined as “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing,” found that even tiny fragments of the outdoors – the aroma of wood, the sound of running water, the sight of forest scenery – can reduce stress. A full listing of benefits found on www.shinrin-yoku.org includes:
- Boosted immune system
- Reduced blood pressure
- Reduced stress
- Improved mood
- Increased ability to focus, even in children
- Accelerated recovery from surgery or illness
- Increased energy level
- Improved sleep
Influential American naturalist, Harvard professor and Pulitzer Prize–winner Edward O. Wilson talks about biophilia, “the connection that human beings subconsciously seek and need with the rest of life.” A British Medical Journal article in 2005 coined the term “ecotherapy,” described as “restoring health through contact with nature.”
Growing up in what was then the small country town of Kilkenny, Ireland, I could watch first-hand the stress of running businesses and fund-raising for a hospital mercifully fade from my father’s face after his evening walk around Jenkinstown Wood, a walled garden loop where Irish poet Thomas Moore wrote The Last Rose of Summer. My Celtic DNA has always harboured an innate reverence of nature and the healing power of plants to restore. Even as a child, I learned to rub dock leaves on my skin to reduce the venomous sting of the dreaded nettle. The benefits of nature are neither new nor uniquely Western. Chinese master Tao Qian (also known as Tao Yuanming), a magistrate born in 365 who had grown discontented with his life and the corruption around him, moved with his family to a country village and took up farming. Despite the hardships and lack of food, he wrote poems about landscapes, flowers and wine, expressing deep connections to the life force of tao: “A bird once caged must yearn for its old forest, a fish in a pond will long to return to the lake.”
Two hundred years later, traditional Chinese medicine doctor Sun Simiao would encourage people to grow their own food and take walks in the country, breathing fresh air and connecting with nature to restore and maintain their health. Indian yogi Paramhansa Yogananda introduced millions to the teachings of meditation and Kriya Yoga, and founded an ashram and school for boys, where the natural beauty and peaceful atmosphere offered refreshment to mind and spirit. Traditions around the world advocate rising and retiring for sleep in concert with the natural rhythms of the sun. And in present-day Western society, small-scale family farms are undergoing a resurgence as young people exchange coffee shops and traffic jams for a piece of land in villages where they can keep chickens and grow pesticide-free food.
As important as the availability of nature, is its quality. A green paper from the Wildlife Trusts of the U.K. and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (wildlifetrusts.org) reported, “People living near quality green space, full of wildlife and thriving habitats, were twice as likely to report low psychological distress as those living near low-quality open spaces.”
Of course, you don’t have to live like Tarzan or Robin Hood to derive healthful benefits from plants. Most of us in the spa industry know that natural plant extracts have been used for eons in medicine and in skincare – horse chestnut, witch hazel, aloe vera, etc. Pharmaceutical companies have been using plant extracts (like willow bark for fever, pain and inflammation) since the mid-18th century. Today’s consumers looking for “100 percent natural” skin and body care need to bear in mind this doesn’t mean 100 percent healthy. Plant components – roots, leaves, seeds or bark – can contain powerful ingredients causing adverse effects in sensitive individuals. One example is chamomile extract in skin cream, which can cause allergic eczema or eye irritation in some individuals.
Most botanical skincare producers recognize the importance of manufacturing procedures, correct labelling and technical training. Professionally produced plant extracts used in spa products usually go through extensive testing for heavy metals and microbial content, plus quality control systems such as organoleptic testing to determine colour, texture, smell, pH, viscosity and specific gravity. Plant extracts are key ingredients in the beneficial spa treatment of aromatherapy, which uses essential oils (the life force of the plant) to treat a variety of conditions. Dating from ancient times and enjoying something of a resurgence today, aromatherapy – whether used in inhalation or massage – depends entirely on plants for its ingredients. The father of modern-day phyto-aromatherapy is considered to be French physician Jean Valnet, who used therapeutic-grade essential oils to treat injured soldiers in World War II.
Our ability to smell comes from the olfactory sensory neurons, found in a small patch of tissue inside the nose which connects directly to the brain. When used properly, inhaled aromatic volatile essences bring about a variety of positive benefits to our sense of well-being. Neroli oil, for example, is calming; eucalyptus oil stimulates the immune system; and peppermint oil aids with digestion.
The essential oil of lemon has been irrefutably credited with powerful antiseptic and bactericidal properties. Scientists Morel and Rochaix demonstrated that vapours of lemon essence can neutralize various bacteria including meningococcus, typhus and pneumococcus. Lemon also can help clear the mind and dispel mental confusion.
Sometimes the effects of aromatherapy are purely personal and emotional. It’s the individual’s reaction to the smells, rather than the substances in them, that triggers the desired effect. As pioneering environmentalist Rachel Carson pointed out, “The sense of smell, almost more than any other, has the power to recall memories, and it is a pity that we use it so little.”
The recent rise of aromatherapy has not gone unnoticed by the technology sector. A small device called Cyrano, a so-called “digital scent speaker and mood modification platform,” connects to a smartphone and releases a “symphony” of distinct smells chosen by its users with the touch of a few buttons to match whatever mood they’re in. Similarly, a company called Petalwell (www.petalwell.com) offers a USB-compatible diffuser that allows the user to choose from a variety of aromas and “release the therapeutic benefits of pure essential oils into any space… At home, travelling, even in the office, you can unlock your body’s own healing power to enhance well-being and influence moods,” the company says.
Clearly, combining modern technology with the healing powers of essential oils will have a pronounced effect on the nature and availability of aromatherapy. But that’s another story.