Taking a Bath

tom's trees 1

Photo by Tom Atkins

“Gentlemen, it is the microbes who will have the last word.” 

 ~ Louis Pasteur

In War of the Worlds, the invading alien fleet is defeated by one of the smallest creatures on Earth, a microbe. Earth’s germs were too much for the aliens, and they died just when mankind was on the brink of annihilation. More recent sci-fi sees the earth invaded by alien or even man-made germs to dire effect – population-decimating plague, zombies, and the not-to-be-forgotten giant amoeba of The Blob.

But our germs, those tiny “animalcules” named by discoverer Antony Van Leeuwenhoek in the 1670’s, have now been found to pervade our world to both bad and good effect.

Germs — the whole assortment of bacteria and viruses that we encounter — are too tiny to be seen with the naked eye, but reveal themselves in all their wonderful and terrible aspect under magnification. They can protect us against invasion by foreigners, mostly microbial, but they also bring their own danger if uncontrolled. Like the aliens from War of the Worlds, native peoples in the Americas and Pacific were unprepared to battle the microbes brought by European invaders. Smallpox, plague, chicken pox, influenza, measles, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, whooping cough and other diseases to which Europeans had developed some tolerance were devastating to people with no previous exposure to them. Their bodies had not developed the necessary microbial or biological protections, and ultimately many did not survive.

(Historical note: Early European settlers on the East coast of North America found the forests largely empty, and assumed it had never been populated. Any guesses as to what happened to the natives?)

Similarly, a plague from Asia continuously rampaged through Europe in the 1300’s until the 1900’s, at one point reducing the population by approximately 30%. (Another historical note: The reduced European population resulted in fewer farm workers, changing the social structure and incidentally reducing the pressure to settle new lands. So, the Vikings gave up on “Vinland”, leaving the “discovery” of America to Columbus a century later.)

Today, we understand more about the role microbes play in our health — both negative and positive. We learned how to immunize ourselves with microbes to prevent disease, and how to manage our environment to minimize the threat of exposure.

And some want to use microbes more aggressively to improve our health. Architect Luke Leung says, “We’ve been getting pretty good at killing bacteria, but we want to revitalize that relationship.” He continues, “We want to understand how the bacteria can help us in the built environment.” The idea is to seed good bacteria into buildings through different mechanisms. One involves caging microbes in small plastic spheres spread throughout a building. Leung also proposes buildings with living green walls impregnated with microbes and using the building’s ventilation to distribute them. Some hospitals have considered impregnating walls and floors with healthy microbes to battle the pervasive infections often present. Think probiotics on the doorknobs.

While these ideas are creative, they are also extremely expensive and their long term impacts uncertain. Reducing hospital infections may be super, but how do the surfaces function over time? Can they be overtaken by bad germs? Do they need to be re-inoculated periodically?

Meanwhile, we can take advantage of what the Japanese call “forest bathing.” Ephrat Livini reports that it “is proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, boost the immune system, and improve overall feelings of well-being.” Part of the Japanese national health program since 1982, Shinrin-Yoku involves nothing more than exposure to the forest, breathing the air and simply chilling out.

Forest air contains “various essential oils, generally called phytoncide, found in wood, plants, and some fruit and vegetables, which trees emit to protect themselves from germs and insects.” Studies of the effects of even thirty minutes’ exposure to forests “promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments.”

And, of course, the effects aren’t only physical. There are psychological effects as well. “The subjects showed significantly reduced hostility and depression scores, coupled with increased liveliness, after exposure to trees.”

These results are consistent with the soothing effects of exposure to nature and vegetation studied elsewhere, and they reinforce that it doesn’t take a large dose of nature to help. Whether you can take a forest bath in the mountains of Japan, Colorado or California — or just sit quietly in a local park, nature helps to soothe your mind and make you feel better.

So, take a hike or go sit in the park. It will do you a world of good and it’s a lot cheaper than a doctor or a shrink.

Additional information:

The Japanese practice of ‘forest bathing’ is scientificially proven to be good for you, Ephrat Livini, Quartz, Published World Economic Forum in collaboration with Quartz. 23 Mar 2017

For healthier buildings, just add bacteria?, Ed Yong, http://www.ideas.ted.com, Jan 24, 2017

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