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The healing power of pine

ChristmasTree.JPG

I love walking into people's homes in December, when the smell of freshly cut Christmas trees hangs in the air and fills me with seasonal joy.

When it comes time to buy my favorite Scotch pine, Douglas fir, or Norway spruce, I use my nose to guide me. I want the freshest, most fragrant tree I can get my hands on: I need that aroma to jump-start my holiday spirit. If my apartment were big enough, I might even consider getting two trees this year!

Only recently did I discover that it's not just sentiment that makes pine so compelling. Pine and other evergreen trees, as it turns out, are loaded with compounds that have a variety of positive effects on the human body.

An extract for what ails you
Native Canadians knew all about those benefits. According to a nearly 500-year-old legend, French explorer Jacques Cartier's ship got stuck in the ice near Quebec. He and his crew faced certain death from scurvy (a vitamin C deficiency) until a tribal chieftain named Donacona brewed the sailors pine tea. It saved their lives and their explorations continued. Later, in the 1940s, a French researcher named Jacques Masquelier discovered that pine bark and needles contain vitamin C.

That researcher went on to test French coastal pine trees (Pinus maritima) and learned that they're loaded with beneficial antioxidant compounds called flavonols and bioflavonoids. He extracted the compounds with hot water and patented his discovery as Pycnogenol. Now marketed as a dietary supplement, Pycnogenol—which has been used as a jet lag remedy—has also been studied for its ability to ease circulatory problems, knee pain, and menstrual cramps; it may even improve memory in the elderly.

A scent for stress relief
In Japan, going for a therapeutic walk in the woods is known as shinrin-yoku, which means "taking in the atmosphere of the forest." This practice has recently been studied for its ability to ease stress.

In one study, researchers at the Japan's Kyoto University sent 498 healthy volunteers on two 15-minute forest strolls one day, compared to a control day when they didn't walk. Volunteers rated their mood on a standard psychological scale. Their hostility and depression scores decreased significantly after walking. What's more, the more stressed-out the volunteers were to begin with, the greater the relaxation they experienced.

While most of us don't have access to ancient Japanese pine forests, we can fake the same emotional effects by taking a stroll through a local Christmas tree farm—or by using essential oils such as balsam or silver fir, spruce, pine, or Scotch pine. Traditional aromatherapy recommends these foresty evergreen oils for soothing bumpy emotions and easing stress. Simply shake a few drops on your pillow or even onto a tissue. Breathe in deeply and slowly, relax, and visualize walking through a piney glade. (You can find pine essential oils at health-food stores.)

Oils for bronchitis or chest coughs
Pine's ability to heal isn't confined to your emotions. It also provides gentle relief for colds and congested sinuses. Add three drops of pine essential oil to a bowl of hot tap water, cover your head with a towel, and inhale the steam through your nose and mouth.

A massage for sore muscles
Add five drops of pine oil (P. pinaster) to two tablespoons of vegetable oil and use it to massage away muscle aches and pains. (Caution: Don't use Scotch pine oil—P. sylvestris—on the skin, as it may be irritating.)

As for this New Yorker, I won't be near any forests or Christmas tree farms anytime soon—but I am planning to take as many walks through the city's makeshift sidewalk forests as I possibly can this holiday season. And I'll be spritzing various pine oils throughout my tiny apartment to power up the soul-soothing scent of my Christmas tree and to keep my holiday spirits operating at peak efficiency.