Effect of Forests
Interview - Professor Karin Kraft
Prof. Karin Kraft is one of the leading German specialists in the field of forest therapy. For many years she has accompanied the development of healing forests in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Since 2002, Prof. Kraft holds the chair for naturopathy and complementary medicine at the University Medical Center Rostock.
Prof. Kraft, you are a scientist and expert in the field of natural medicine. You have been supporting the professionalization of forest therapy for many years. Can you tell us what health potential you see in the forest?
The forest offers manifold potentials for human health, ranging from wellness and recreation to prevention and health promotion to therapy and rehabilitation of diseases. The forest has a distinctly health-promoting climate. The pure air, reduced in pollutants, and the high humidity have a positive effect on our health and relieve the respiratory tract. The sensory stimuli typical of the forest, such as birdsong or the smell of the diverse flora, have an overall relaxing effect. The subdued light and the predominance of green tones promote stress reduction and lift the mood. In addition, the forest creates incentives for movement, which promotes motor skills.
Are there any scientific studies to back this up?
The health-promoting effect of the forest has attracted increasing attention in the international scientific community over the past 10 years. Various studies, some of them controlled, especially from Asia, show that spending time in the forest promotes rest and relaxation and has positive effects on the body and mind.
The results regarding stress reduction are worth emphasizing. By spending time in the forest, the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, known to be important for relaxation, is significantly increased. At the same time, the levels of stress hormones such as cortisol decrease. In addition to the positive effects on mental health, for example, in people with mild anxiety disorders, there is clear evidence of a health-promoting effect on the cardiovascular system, as spending time in the forest leads to a significant reduction in elevated blood pressure.
In addition, there is evidence that the immune system is favorably influenced by a stay in the forest. Studies from Japan show that the number of certain immune cells (natural killer cells) increases after a longer stay in the forest. Whether this also strengthens the immune system in the long term remains to be proven, as does how long and how often these stays should last.
(More information here)
How can I use the health-promoting effect of the forest for myself?
The use of the "green pharmacy" forest is open to everyone. However, to make the most of the forest's health potential, guidance by professionally trained experts is recommended. Such forest-based health offers are described and marketed under various terms such as forest bathing, forest therapy, or forest medicine.
Offers for forest therapy exist in Germany and some other countries. In the federal state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, a certified continuing education program has been developed that enables therapists to qualify to accompany patients with various illnesses in the forest, especially in a healing forest. I myself am a lecturer for this program. (More information here)
What distinguishes forest therapy from a walk in the forest?
Forest therapy specifically promotes the health-promoting effect of the forest on the body and mind, distinguishing between preventive and therapeutic offerings. The latter is specifically applied to the treatment of diseases, preferably in specially designed healing forests. It is important that the treatment is tailored to the disease and the individual resilience of the patient. A walk in the forest, on the other hand, is not a therapeutic application, but an individual recreational measure.
For which clinical pictures is forest therapy suitable?
Depending on the location and condition, different diseases can be treated in a certified healing forest. Essential here is the guidance and support of trained forest therapists. Forest therapy is particularly suitable for the supportive treatment of diseases of the respiratory tract and the musculoskeletal system, for psychosomatic diseases such as burnout, insomnia, anxiety disorders, or depression, for states of exhaustion, e.g. also after tumor diseases, and for cardiovascular diseases.
How exactly is the forest used as a therapeutic agent in these diseases?
Here I can give some examples: The aim of forest therapy in the field of respiratory diseases is to improve lung capacity. The year-round high air quality in the forest has a positive effect on the inflammatory changes in the respiratory tract. For moderately to severely ill patients, the lower heat and cold stresses are advantageous compared to the forest-free environment. The mild stimulating climate of the forest in combination with respiratory gymnastics can also improve the coordination of the respiratory muscles and the general state of fitness.
Likewise, forest therapy can be useful in the treatment of inflammatory and degenerative diseases of the musculoskeletal system. Neurological diseases such as Parkinson's disease or advanced multiple sclerosis lead to balance and coordination disorders and limit general mobility. The soft, uneven forest floor is particularly suitable for balance training here with appropriate therapeutic support. The various impressions in the forest also distract patients from their pain and fear of falling, which has a beneficial effect on the training.
Can you describe what exactly a healing forest is and how it differs from other forests?
Healing forests are forest areas that are designed for therapeutic use for specific medical indications. A healing forest is proven to be suitable for the treatment of diseases. Therefore, the forest must meet a number of criteria, which should of course be verified.
For this purpose, the "International Certification Body Healing Forest" was established, which verifies the suitability of forests for the creation of a healing forest. This procedure ensures that the high-quality standards are maintained and that the user can be sure that such a forest has a preventive and, for certain diseases, even a palliative, possibly even curative effect. (More information here)
Thank you very much for the exciting interview and the interesting facts.