Research has repeatedly proven that being out in nature can help you sleep better. This is something certified forest bathers have known for quite some time.
What is forest bathing?
With its origins in Japan, forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, emerged in the 1980s as a mindfulness practice in which devotees spent uninterrupted, quiet moments among trees, resulting in improved mental and physical health. The custom has made its way to the United States, where it continues to surge in popularity.
“There is real growing interest in the connection between nature and health,” says Jane Dobson, mindful nature guide and founder of Mind The Forest, LLC. Dobson is certified by the Kripalu School of Mindful Outdoor Leadership and the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.
More than anyone, Dobson understands the therapeutic benefits of spending time in nature. “No doubt, just getting outside for fresh air is beneficial, and most people identify feeling better after time spent outdoors, whether physically or emotionally,” she says.
Dobson explains that when we go out into a natural environment where we slow down and deliberately engage all our senses, our bodies respond in several ways that promote overall health.
One of these benefits is improved sleep. “I think we all experience better sleep when we feel better,” Dobson says. “When we are more relaxed, we are happier and healthier.”
With spring on the horizon—promising warmer weather and increased opportunities to go outdoors—it’s the perfect time to bring a little more nature into your day. Read on to discover how forest bathing boosts health—and sleep in the process—and how to harness the benefits.
The sleep and health benefits of forest bathing
Experts are increasingly confirming a direct connection between spending time outdoors and improved health and sleep.
For example, one University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign study found that people over 65 sleep better when they have access to nature. Another study from the University of Colorado Boulder showed that weekend camping trips can help reset one’s circadian rhythm because of the exposure to natural sunlight.
“There is now a growing body of scientific evidence that demonstrates the health benefits of spending time in nature,” Dobson says. “The empirical data shows that even after small periods of time in nature, there are real and measurable health benefits: our stress hormone cortisol decreases, our blood pressure lowers, our heart rate decreases, and there can be a reduction in inflammation that causes many health issues.”
In addition to the physical benefits, the mental benefits include elevated mood, improved focus, reduced anxiety, a decrease in negative ruminative thoughts, and better sleep, according to Dobson.
“This is because nature immersion activates our parasympathetic nervous system,” Dobson says. “This is commonly referred to as ‘rest and digest,’ or the relaxation response.”
This is the opposite of the “fight or flight” response, where your body begins pumping out adrenaline so you can jump out of the way of a bus—or in the case of our ancestors, run away from a lion.
“Today, many of us operate in a chronic low-intensity ‘fight or flight’ environment on a daily basis,” says Dobson. “This level of daily stress results in all sorts of health ailments, such as physical disease, anxiety, depression, inability to focus, and insomnia.”
But deep down, our bodies are “hard-wired to the natural environment,” as Dobson puts it. It’s in our ancestry to want—and need—to be outdoors.
“There is now a growing body of scientific evidence that demonstrates the health benefits of spending time in nature. The empirical data shows that even after small periods of time in nature, there are real and measurable health benefits: our stress hormone cortisol decreases, our blood pressure lowers, our heart rate decreases, and there can be a reduction in inflammation that causes many health issues.”Jane Dobson
Forest bathing, or simply spending time in nature, helps us calm down, which allows our bodies to heal and restore themselves. Dobson says experiencing the world through our senses—such as listening to the sound of leaves or feeling the touch of wind on our skin—makes us feel alive and present.
In other words? All this tranquility, and the health gains that come with it, translate to better sleep.
How to try forest bathing for better sleep
You don’t have to pack your bags and head out to the wilderness for weeks of nature immersion—unless that’s something you have the time for. You can work nature into your daily schedule with the help of these tips.
Aim for two hours a week in nature
According to a 2019 study, spending a minimum of 120 minutes per week in nature boosts general health and well-being. That works out to just under 20 minutes a day.
“Forest bathing or mindful time in nature is a practice, just like yoga or meditation,” Dobson says. “How much time do you need to feel the health benefits? Two hours a week. Anything less shows no meaningful health benefits.”
She points to a 2021 article from The Wall Street Journal that says spending time in nature is the new “10,000 steps” for improving your health.
“Just like fitness tracker apps, there are even apps being developed to track time spent in nature,” adds Dobson. (Learn about the benefits of sleeping outside.)
Experience the present moment
While you may have to double down on your time commitment to go outdoors, you don’t have to commit to learning everything about the outdoors. In fact, it’s just as simple as putting your phone away and living in the present moment.
“Forest bathing doesn’t require you to be a naturalist able to identify plants and trees,” Dobson says. “This is about getting out of your thinking mind and experiencing the present moment through your senses.”
Breathe in the smell of freshly fallen rain. Deeply observe the vibrant colors of flowers. Listen to the birds singing in the trees.
Keep it to your neighborhood
You’ll be pleased to know you don’t have to travel to a national park every day to reap the benefits of nature. Instead, you can experience it right out your front door.
“You don’t have to go far,” says Dobson. “Any green space near your home works.”
For instance, even if you take the same route every day while walking your dog, you can observe how the seasons change the scenery, any new vegetables growing in a garden, or just the green grass that lines your route.
Try a guided walk
To really take a dive into forest therapy and nature immersion, Dobson recommends signing up for a walk with a professional forest bathing guide. She suggests visiting the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides & Programs website to find a guide in your area.
If there aren’t any guided walks available in your region, Dobson says it can be just as good to develop a practice on your own. She advises doing some homework, which includes reading the book Your Guide to Forest Bathing by M. Amos Clifford.
The bottom line: If you’re struggling with insomnia or other sleep-related problems, spending time in nature might be one way you can improve your shuteye. “Getting outside is so simple, it costs nothing, and it may just help,” says Dobson.
Ever wondered why being out in the sun makes you feel so sleepy? Check out our article on why the sun makes you tired to learn more.