The Benefits Of “Forest Bathing”

The Japanese call it shinrin-yoku, which translates into English as “forest bathing.” It has nothing to do with bathing in the normal sense of the word, however.  Instead, the concept might better be described as “forest immersion.”

IMG_1396For some time now, Japanese people looking to reduce the stress of everyday living have been heading to the forest.  Their approach to shinrin-yoku is simple:  go out into the woods, shut off your cell phone, and take in the forest atmosphere to the maximum extent you can, without a specific goal or destination in mind.  Use your senses as you wander.  Breathe in the cool fresh air that leaves your nostrils tingling.  Touch the rough tree bark and the soft moss.  Listen to the wind rustle the leaves, and hear the birdsong.  Sit down on the ground or a fallen tree and smell the humid mix of growing plants, decaying wood, and moist earth.  Feel the tree shade on your skin.

The proponents of shinrin-yoku say that it produces all kinds of health benefits, in addition to stress reduction:  improved functioning of the immune system, reduced blood pressure, improved mood and energy, heightened mental acuity, and better sleep.  In short, regular leisurely, relaxed strolls through the woods can provide the kind of mental and physical health benefits that stressed-out Americans typically try to obtain through prescription drugs or some other artificial means.  Should this come as a surprise?

One of the weirder things about modern America is how resistant some people are to actually experiencing nature.  Every morning, as I’m on my morning walk, I travel past a small health club where people are jogging and walking on treadmills, watching TV —   when they could be jogging around the same park I’m heading to only a few blocks away, where they could breathe some fresh air rather than stale sweat smells, experience the morning quiet, and chuckle at the quacking ducks waddling by.  Why make that choice?  Why do people hop in their cars rather than walking, even for short distances?

I don’t think you need to plan a trip to a primeval forest to experience the benefits of shinrin-yoku.  I think any effort to get out into the natural world, in quiet way, walking at your own pace and listening and looking and feeling, is going to be a good thing on more levels than we can count.

The Original Wonder Drug

A few years ago, our family doctor, who is a big believer in preventative medicine, encouraged me to start taking one low dose aspirin tablet ever day.  He said that you can’t argue with the statistics, which show all kinds of health benefits for people over the age of 50, including reduced risk of heart attack, from popping one of the tiny 81 milligram pills when you get up in the morning.  Since then, it’s become part of my daily routine.

bfd1b581-55ea-43ed-99f3-2410b30c9108_1-b4f9e3c1a45452b53c94cf7b9a8027a3But, because I’m curious, I found myself wondering . . . what’s in aspirin, anyway?

The active ingredient in aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid, which is based on a substance generated in plants of the Spiraea genus.  For almost as long as humans have been around, since the days of ancient Egypt, they’ve been chewing the barks and leaves of certain trees or eating certain foods to obtain the pain reduction effects of the acid, without knowing that it was the acid that was doing the heavy lifting.  In the 1800s, doctors and scientists realized that chewing tree bark might not be the best way to deliver the therapeutic effects and began to focus on what was actually causing people to feel better.  They discovered that salicylic acid was the key ingredient, and then developed the acid synthetically.  The acetylsalicylic acid was reduced to powder form and mixed with other substances — stomach-friendly buffers like corn starch — for delivery to patients.  Bayer aspirin is called that because it was developed by a chemist in Bayer, Germany, and was first sold in pill form in 1915.

I remember taking St. Joseph’s aspirin for children, in those tasty, chewable, orange-flavored tablets, when I was a kid, and then as a teenager I graduated to the Bayer bottle, taking one of those dusty, bitter white pills if I had a bad headache.  Now those little 81 milligram pills, helpfully coated to go down easy, are working every day in my blood stream, trying keep the platelets flowing rather than clumping.

Those ancient Egyptians obviously knew what they were doing, but I’m glad that I can get the benefits by taking a pill rather than munching on some tree bark.

Cheese, Cheese, It’s Good For Your Heart

It’s always rewarding when you learn that something you consume routinely and really enjoy turns out to have alleged health benefits.

So, being a long-time turophile (i.e., a cheese lover) I was pleased to learn that eating cheese apparently helps you to live longer.  Tests on mice indicate that aged, runny, smelly cheeses — like blue cheese — contain a substance called spermidine that produces improved cardiac function.  Then, when scientists studied a group of 800 Italians to see whether noshing on cheese seemed to have health benefits for humans, they found that the Italians who ate more cheese had lower blood pressure, a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and a significantly lower risk of heart failure.

Of course, we could debate whether a group of 800 Italians is a sufficiently large control group, or whether you can effectively screen out the influence of other life activities to determine that cheese consumption is the specific cause of the better heart health results — but since I like the results of the study and it supports my cheese-eating habits, we’ll just say that laboratory mice and 800 Italians can’t be wrong.

14,000 Steps

Periodically I am prompted to download one of those large iPhone updates on my cell phone.  Normally I have no idea what the update changes, but sometimes it adds a new app, like “Wallet” or “Watch,” that appears on my screen but I never use thereafter.

nwm13724144038584_3_t2One of the recent updates added an app called, simply, “Health.”  I ignored it, too, until I inadvertently opened it two days ago and saw that it is tracking steps, distance walked, and flights of stairs climbed, and then creating a daily average.  Those results are displayed on a dashboard chart against a kind of goal line — like 14,000 steps — that lurks just beyond my standard daily output.  Based on what my Fitbit Friends have said, it sounds like a iPhone variation of the Fitbit.  (The “Health” app also allows you to do other things, like identify and download other apps that will collect and analyze other personal health data, in categories like “sleep” and “nutrition,” but I’m not going to worry about those.)

As soon as I saw the tracking dashboard for the app, it hooked me.  I’m not a super-competitive person, but I am goal-oriented — even if it’s a goal set for me by some anonymous app added to my iPhone in a generic update.  As soon as I realized that the app was tracking flights of stairs climbed, I felt strangely compelled to take the stairs to try to up my average.  And even though I walk a mile and a half to work everyday, I’m still coming up a bit short of those 14,000 steps, and I feel an irresistible urge to try to hit, and then surpass, that goal.

Our brains are wired in different ways.  Some people find the motivation to exercise within, some never find it, some respond to doctor’s orders, and some are encouraged by measuring their progress and trying to improve those numbers.  I’m definitely in the latter category.  Today I’m going to change my routine to try to get to those 14,000 steps — and a few more flights of stairs to boot.

Skeeter-Proofing

Nobody likes mosquitoes under any circumstances, but these days — with the scary mosquito-borne Zika virus very much in the news, places like Brazil and Puerto Rico experiencing thousands of infected people, and Florida reporting hundreds of cases — trying to avoid their annoying bites has become especially important.

IMG_1141So what can you do, other than trying to stay away from South America and the warm, humid states for a while?  This article helpfully identifies 12 potential mosquito breeding grounds that might be found on your property.   Mosquitoes lay their eggs in standing, stagnant water.  Birdbaths and inert koi ponds are obvious targets — but the water that collects in the bottom of a tire swing or on the folds on a tarp or on a kid’s toy left out in the yard might pass under the radar screen.  I did the mosquito checklist test at our house and we come out with a good score, and so far, at least, it’s been a mosquito-free summer in our backyard.  Of course, there’s not much you can do about what your neighbors might have by their fence line.

We seem to have a new, frightening public health crisis every year; this year, it’s the Zika virus, with the bites of infected mosquitoes causing microcephalic babies, birth defects, and other health conditions.  It’s not clear how far north the Zika threat might spread, but why take a chance?  An ounce of mosquito-proofing might be worth a pound of cure — and Zika virus or not, a summer without pesky mosquitoes and their itchy bites is going to be a better summer all around.

Obesity On The Interstate

On Saturday and Sunday, Kish and I drove home from Maine.  It was a long trip, so we broke it up into two days.  The distance wasn’t a problem for me, though, because I just enjoy driving, listening to the radio, and seeing the countryside pass by.

northway-exit1We rolled along interstate highways in Massachusetts, upstate New York (where we got ridiculously gouged paying tolls on the New York Turnpike), and then Pennsylvania and Ohio.  Because we were on the NY Turnpike, we used the service plazas to fill up, and we visited rest areas on the non-toll roads.  As we stopped from time to time and I passed fellow travelers, I slowly realized something:

My God!  We are a country of porkers!

Look, I recognize that the crowd you see on the interstate highway system in the Eastern time zone isn’t a random statistical sample of the United States as a whole.  I know you can’t extrapolate from the people I happened to see, by chance, as I stopped to fill up or hit the men’s restroom.  But after a while the number of seriously obese people I was seeing at every stop became so obvious that it just couldn’t be ignored.  And I’m not talking about people who are a few pounds above their ideal, either.  I’m talking about people that move with the slow waddle characteristic of the grossly overweight, men with colossal beer guts, women who are huffing and puffing just walking from their cars to a roadside restroom, and people who look like they are ready to burst out of their clothes.

I’m not saying this to be funny, or provocative.  It really was disturbing, and depressing.  There obviously are a lot of morbidly obese people in this country, and if you want to see them just drive a while on the interstate highway system.  When you think about the back problems, and diabetes, and joint problems, and heart disease, and high blood pressure, and other health conditions associated with obesity, you realize that the weight problems of so many people have to be a large contributor to the exploding health care costs in the United States.  Is it any wonder that we can’t control health care costs, when so many people can’t control their own urges and their own weight?

Garbage In

What are the costs of eating fast food?  Of course, one cost is the simple consumption of an unsatisfying, typically over-salted meal in either a car seat or a sticky and garish fast-food environment, rather than sitting down to a leisurely meal with family or friends.  That’s a given.  Then there’s the weight gain that tends to result from slamming down high-calorie processed foods.  But now research is indicating there’s even more to it.

chemicals-in-fast-food-wrappers-show-up-in-human-bloodThe Washington Post recently published an article about the curious association between fast-food consumption and phthalates.  (Yes, “phthalate” is a real word, and no, I have no idea how it is pronounced.)  The study tracked fast-food intake by 9,000 research subjects — fast-food was defined as any food served at a restaurant without waiters or waitresses — and took urine samples from them.  Analysis of the urine samples showed that people who had eaten any fast food in the last 24 hours had higher phthalate levels than people who had not eaten any fast food during that same period, and the larger your fast food intake, the higher your phthalate levels tended to be.

The results are troubling because phthalates are industrial chemicals used to soften plastic and vinyl and make it more flexible, and the Post reports that they have been associated with a number of adverse health effects.  Male infertility is one of them, and another is diabetes.  Why do people who consume fast food have higher phthalate levels?  Researchers don’t know for sure, but they suspect it is because the processed nature of fast food means that the food tends to touch a lot more machines, conveyor belts, plastic wrapping, other packaging materials, and other potential sources of phthalates before it gets onto your plate — I mean, your cheap cardboard box, paper bag or foam container.

But here’s the most troubling part of the Post story from my standpoint: the research revealed, and other government studies confirm, that one-third of the participants eat some form of fast food every day.  That includes one-third of kids and adolescents.

A diet that includes fast food every day.  Just the thought of it makes my mouth feel dry and briny from anticipation of the salt intake.  It’s no wonder that we’ve got some serious health and obesity problems in the U.S. of A.  We’ve got to start taking better care of ourselves, and it starts with eating better food.