Happy Earth Day, Happy Year of the Forests!

White oak. Photo by Henry Domke http://www.henrydomke.com

White oak. Photo by Henry Domke, www.henrydomke.com

Wow, under the wire here to get this post out before Earth Day ends. But really, every day is Earth Day, right?

2011 is also the Year of the Tree, or the Year of the Forests, another thing I’ve been meaning to blog about since January.

The International Year of the Tree/Year of the Forests was launched at the United Nations Headquarters in New York to heighten awareness of the value of forests in people’s lives and to galvanize action for trees and forests around the world. Here’s the UN website, with lots of great information, pictures, and videos and here’s their Facebook page. And here’s another nice website/blog, The Tree Year, with all sorts of good information and activities to help you celebrate.

Just one of the many reasons that trees are so awesome: One tree can absorb about a ton of carbon dioxide over its lifetime, and produces nearly 260 pounds of oxygen each year – the equivalent of the amount consumed by 18 people annually. For more fun facts about trees and their importance, see Trees Are Good, by the International Society of Arboriculture.

“Shinrin-yoku,” or “forest bathing,” is a practice in Japan in which people visit a forest while breathing in phytoncides – wood essential oils – that are antimicrobial volatile organic compounds derived from trees. According to Wikipedia (yes, I am cutting corners) it has now become a recognized relaxation and/or stress management activity in Japan.

A great article (“Really? The Claim: Exposure to Plants and Parks Can Boost Immunity,” by Anahad O’Connor for The New York Times, July 5, 2010) about this practice was published last year. I’m hoping the intellectual copyright people won’t sue me for posting two paragraphs from the article here:

“One study published in January included data on 280 healthy people in Japan, where visiting nature parks for therapeutic effect has become a popular practice called “Shinrin-yoku,” or “forest bathing.” On one day, some people were instructed to walk through a forest or wooded area for a few hours, while others walked through a city area. On the second day, they traded places. The scientists found that being among plants produced “lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure,” among other things.

A number of other studies have shown that visiting parks and forests seems to raise levels of white blood cells, including one in 2007 in which men who took two-hour walks in a forest over two days had a 50-percent spike in levels of natural killer cells. And another found an increase in white blood cells that lasted a week in women exposed to phytoncides in forest air.

The main study that O’Connor is referring to is:
Li Q, Morimoto K, Kobayashi M, Inagaki H, Katsumata M, Hirata Y, et al. Visiting a forest, but not a city, increases human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins. Int J Immunopathol Pharmacol. 2008;21:117–28. Visit that same Wikipedia page for more.

So, happy Earth Day, and happy Year of the Forests!