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The Health Benefits of Trees and Forests


The Health Benefits of Trees and Forests

In the face of rapid urbanisation and climate change, the role of trees and forests is becoming increasingly crucial not only for the environment, but also for human health. Trees and forests perform many functions that significantly affect our physical and mental health. In cities around the world, green spaces are often seen as a luxury, but their value goes far beyond aesthetics. They are an indispensable part of a healthy urban ecosystem and have a direct impact on residents’ quality of life.

In an era of intense urbanisation, with more and more people living in densely populated urban areas, contact with nature is becoming increasingly limited. Overloaded schedules, air pollution, noise pollution and the stress of an urban lifestyle all have a negative impact on our health. For this reason, understanding and promoting the benefits of trees and forests is extremely important.

Trees and forests not only contribute to air quality by absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen, but also play a key role in temperature regulation, noise reduction and biodiversity conservation. In addition, scientific research increasingly confirms that contact with nature has many health benefits that can support our wellbeing and quality of life.

In this article, we will take a closer look at what specific health benefits trees and forests provide. We will discuss how trees filter the air, how contact with nature affects our psyche and what substances secreted by trees can support our immune system. We will also learn why regular exposure to green spaces can improve the quality of our sleep, reduce the risk of chronic disease and support visual and cognitive health.

Understanding these benefits is key to promoting green activities and urban sustainability. Caring for green spaces and tree planting initiatives can contribute to better public health and quality of life for residents.

Clean Air

One of the most important and direct ways in which trees affect our health is by improving air quality. Trees act as natural filters, capturing pollutants such as pollen, fumes and chemicals from the air. This process is mainly done through the leaves of the trees, which absorb harmful substances from the air and trap them on their surface.

Studies show that urban woodland can significantly reduce air pollution levels. In London, for example, urban trees remove around 2,241 tonnes of pollutants from the air each year, helping to improve the health of residents. Better air quality translates into a lower risk of respiratory diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and respiratory infections.

In cities, where air pollution is a serious problem, tree planting is becoming an effective and cost-efficient solution in the fight for cleaner air. Examples of such initiatives can be found around the world – from tree planting campaigns in Beijing to counter smog, to local reforestation projects in American cities such as New York and Los Angeles.

Reducing Stress and Improving Mental Health

Being among trees and forests has an extremely positive effect on mental health. Contact with nature has a calming effect, reducing stress levels and improving wellbeing. In an era of widespread stress associated with city life, contact with nature becomes an invaluable source of relief.

Scientific research confirms that being among trees and green spaces can lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. For example, a study by the University of Illinois found that people who regularly spend time in city parks have significantly lower stress levels than those who spend time in the concrete jungle of the city.

The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, known as forest bathing, has become a popular therapeutic method to aid mental health. It involves spending time in the forest, engaging all the senses and immersing oneself in the natural surroundings. Studies have shown that forest bathing can reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression and improve overall wellbeing. In addition, regular time in nature can lead to better concentration, increased creativity and improved mood.

Strengthening the Immune System

Being among trees and forests not only improves mental health, but also strengthens the immune system. Trees secrete phytoncides – chemicals that protect them from bacteria, fungi and insects. Phytoncides also have a beneficial effect on humans, strengthening our immune system.

A study in Japan found that people in the forest had higher levels of NK cells (natural killers), which play a key role in the body’s defence against viruses and cancer cells. The increase in NK cells persisted for several days after a walk in the forest, suggesting that regular exposure to nature can lead to a long-term strengthening of the immune system.

In addition, contact with nature can increase levels of vitamin D, a deficiency of which is common, especially in countries with colder climates. Vitamin D is crucial for bone health and the immune system, and its production in the body is increased by exposure to natural sunlight, which is abundant in forested areas.

Physical activity and recreation

Green spaces such as parks and forests encourage physical activity, which is another important health aspect. Walking, running, cycling or outdoor yoga are forms of activity that can easily be done in wooded spaces.

Outdoor physical activity has numerous health benefits, including improved heart and lung capacity, increased muscle strength, weight reduction and improved overall fitness. Regular exercise in a natural setting can also reduce the risk of many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Research shows that people who have easy access to green spaces are more likely to engage in physical activity and lead healthier lifestyles. For example, a study in the UK found that residents in areas with more green space showed higher levels of physical activity and had better health outcomes than those living in less green areas.

Improving the quality of sleep

Sleep quality is a key element of our health and wellbeing. Trees and forests can make a significant contribution to improving our sleep by creating a calm and clean environment. Research shows that contact with nature can help regulate the diurnal rhythm and promote deeper, more restorative sleep.

One of the mechanisms by which nature influences sleep is by reducing stress levels. As already mentioned, being surrounded by trees reduces cortisol levels, which translates into a calmer mind and easier sleep. People who spend time outdoors, especially in forests, often report better sleep quality and fewer problems with insomnia.

In addition, forests and wooded areas have lower noise levels compared to urban environments. The quiet, natural setting promotes relaxation and can prevent noise-induced sleep disturbances. In cities, where noise is an unavoidable problem, access to green spaces can provide an oasis of calm, allowing for better rest.

Reducing the risk of chronic diseases

Being among trees and forests can also reduce the risk of many chronic diseases. Studies have shown that people who regularly spend time in nature have a lower risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity. The physical activity that green spaces promote is one of the key factors in the prevention of these diseases.

Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. Being in nature and exercising regularly outdoors can improve heart health by lowering blood pressure, reducing cholesterol levels and improving blood vessel function. A study in Finland found that people who live near forests have a lower risk of heart disease compared to those who live in more urbanised areas.

Similarly, contact with nature can help manage blood sugar levels and prevent type 2 diabetes. Physical activity outdoors, especially in the form of walking or running, improves insulin sensitivity and helps control blood glucose levels.

Increasing creativity and improving concentration

Being in nature, including forests, can increase creativity and improve concentration. Studies have shown that people who spend time in nature often experience ‘cognitive renewal’, leading to better focus and higher mental performance. For example, a study by Stanford University found that students who walked in a park had better scores on creativity and concentration tests than those who walked on city streets.

Strengthening social relations

Green spaces are also conducive to strengthening social relationships. Meeting outdoors, taking walks and picnics together can bring people together, improving mental and emotional health. Strong social relationships are key to overall wellbeing and can contribute to a longer, healthier life.

Reducing Cancer Risk

Some studies suggest that contact with nature may reduce the risk of certain types of cancer. For example, being in a forest can increase levels of natural killer (NK) cells, which play a key role in fighting cancer cells. Research in Japan has shown that people who regularly spend time in the forest have higher levels of NK cell activity, which may help to reduce cancer risk.

Improving Cognitive Health in Senior Citizens

Being surrounded by green space has a particularly beneficial effect on the cognitive health of older people. Studies show that seniors living near green spaces have better cognitive function, including memory and thinking skills. Contact with nature may also reduce the risk of developing dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Supporting Visual Health

Looking at computer screens and other digital devices for long periods of time can lead to eye problems such as eye fatigue and myopia. Being outdoors and looking at natural landscapes can help alleviate these problems. Research suggests that children who spend more time outdoors have a lower risk of developing myopia.

Improving Postnatal Self-Care

Research suggests that contact with nature can support women’s mental health after childbirth. Being in parks and forests can help reduce symptoms of postnatal depression and improve the overall wellbeing of young mothers. Outdoor physical activity may also speed up recovery from pregnancy.

Trees and forests play a key role in improving our health, offering benefits that go far beyond aesthetic beauty and environmental protection. Clean air, stress reduction, boosting the immune system, promoting physical activity, improving sleep quality and reducing the risk of chronic diseases are just some of the many benefits that contact with nature brings.

In an age of increasing urbanisation and fast-paced lifestyles, appreciating and protecting our green spaces becomes vital. Encouraging tree planting and caring for forests is an investment in public health and the future of our planet. Therefore, it is worth supporting environmentally friendly initiatives and ensuring that our cities and surroundings are as green as possible.