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Forests and human health and well-being

Forests and human health and well-being

Paul Butler, Teagasc Forestry Specialist, tells us about the importance of non-timber values of forests.

I was lucky enough to work for several years as a young graduate in a huge forest reserve in the south eastern amazon of Peru. I remember one morning meeting a small group of women from the village who were heading out into the forest and I was invited to tag along.

During the next few hours we wandered, apparently aimlessly, through the forest close to the village. Probably at no stage were we more than 2km from the village and there was a chatty, informal, fun atmosphere. There were some older women, one or two young mothers and some girls.

There didn’t seem to be a plan or a particular aim. We stopped. We started. We stopped again. Nothing much seemed to be happening. But I was given this fruit to try and that leaf to smell. At one place something was dug up - a root or tuber. At another, berries were eaten and collected. At yet another, spot leaves were bundled up and tied with small strings made from the stems of climbing plants. One tree or bush I, as a man, was told not to come close to - it was for collecting leaves (or was it the bark) that were said to enhance fertility! I can’t remember the details. But finally, a point came when we had so much stuff gathered we couldn’t comfortably carry it all and one old lady sat down on the forest floor and in 20 minutes had produced two beautiful baskets from big flat leaves taken from yet another tree. These we used to carry our bounty home.

Peruvian forest - making a basket Peruvian forest - view over the forest Peruvian forest - harvesting

Photos of a Peruvian forest; making a basket, view over the forest, harvesting.

It was my first real lesson in how important forests are to people - providing seeds, berries, leaves, medicines and building materials. It was also a social occasion, time out in the open air, an education for the younger people (and for me!). And fun!

More and more, these non-timber values of forests are being recognised as important, indeed vital. An amazon forest is, of course, extraordinarily rich and diverse (I seem to remember a figure of something like 2,000 woody plant species per km2 in the Manu area). But no matter where it is, a forest provides timber of course, but always a myriad of other things.

One of these things is a difficult to measure but tangibly felt sense of well-being after time spent in a forest. Something resonates with us as we walk under the trees.

A report published in the journal Nature, shows that people who spend at least 120 minutes in nature each week are significantly more likely to report higher psychological well-being than those who don't visit nature at all during an average week. The benefits peaked at between 200–300 minutes of contact with nature per week, with no further gain beyond this. The pattern was consistent across a wide range of key groups including men and women, older adults across different occupational and ethnic groups, among those living in both rich and poor areas, and those with long-term health issues. And the research found that it did not matter how the 120 minutes of contact a week was achieved, whether in a single visit or over several shorter visits.

An FAO report discusses many of the vital services provided by forests to humans. The so called 'Biodiversity Hypothesis' suggests that where there is reduced contact with healthy nature (biodiversity) then there is a corresponding reduction in the stimulation of the human immune-regulatory processes with a resulting increase in chronic inflammatory diseases. It seems that people, especially children, who live near forests or have regular interaction with forest environments through work or play are less likely to develop allergic diseases than those living in urban areas. This interaction between humans and nature actually changes the microbiome on the skin and in the gut of humans and this has numerous beneficial health benefits. The old saying that a little dirt never hurt anyone may be true after all and in fact a little dirt may be beneficial!

The therapeutic effects of forests have been recognised in Japan for decades and the term 'Forest Bathing' (Shinrin-yoku) originated there. Forest bathing therapists are certified and recognised. There are therapeutic forest gardens in Denmark and therapeutic forest trails in Finland. In Germany some areas are legally designated as recreational, curative or healing forests, based on specific criteria such as quietness, air quality, therapy provision and so on. The effect of woods on people is so well recognised that there are even virtual forest environments being created in urban settings for people who do not have easy or regular access to real woods.

A 2016 survey of visitors to Irish forests found that the main psychological well-being benefit experienced by forest visitors was mental relaxation. A programme of forest walks organised for people suffering from depression found that participants registered improvements immediately following their visits. They also realised a significant uplift in mood following therapy for which these visits were an important element.

Irish forest - Recreation space Irish forest - sycamore canopy Photos of an Irish forest - edible fungi

Photos of an Irish forest; Recreation space, sycamore canopy, edible fungi.

In Wicklow, an evaluation of a forest and health project begun in 2012 by Coillte, HSE/Wicklow Mental Health Association and Wicklow Sports Partnership found, among other things, that “participants improved their mood by 75% and sleep by 66%.”

Basically it seems that spending time in nature is good for us! Perhaps that is why some 30 million visits are made to Irish forest sites per year. We seem to intuitively seek out these places to relax.

And perhaps we also recognise that reconnecting with nature is, in fact, a way to reconnect with ourselves - that we are also “nature” and our increasingly urban lifestyle needs to be balanced with time in wild places.