Gardening As An Antidepressant
by Rob Sproule
If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance that gardening makes you happy. Growing plants is an uplifting, life-affirming contrast with our often frustratingly repetitive daily routine. It turns out that the inner glow you feel when you get your hands into fresh soil isn’t just psychological; it’s chemical.
A recent study from the University of Bristol ( http://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2007/5384.html ) confirmed that exposure to a soil-borne bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae actually altered the brain chemistry of mice in the same way that anti-depressants do. The friendly bacteria activates serotonin, releasing neutrons in the brain (otherwise known as the happiness hormone).
The Happy Gardener
A customer once told me that gardening was her Prozac. That stuck with me, and it turns out she was right. Very right. Prozac releases serotonin, and so does exposure to soil! The next time someone tells you that being in the garden makes them happier and calmer, believe them!
You get M. vaccae into your body the same way as any bacteria, helpful or harmful. Just having it on your hands will let some of it into your bloodstream, especially if you have open cuts. So it’s not just the plants that make you happy!
Soil churned up from digging or walking release it into the air to be inhaled. You don’t even have to be gardening to ingest M. vaccae. Walking in the woods or simply playing outside is enough to inhale it. The next time you feel anxious, a little digging or a walk down a nature path may be enough to calm you down and improve your mood.
It’s an important caveat here that the healthier the soil is, the healthier your soil-borne bacteria will be.
Soil is a living system, just like we are. Cut back on the chemicals and synthetic fertilizers and your garden will be, literally, a happier place.
I love watching toddlers play in the garden. Please see The Toddlers Garden for a deeper perspective. The look on their faces as they pull up a dirty carrot or eat a sun ripened strawberry is the purest kind of wonder: the wonderment of childhood and nature discovering each other.
By alleviating anxiety and increasing focus, serotonin plays an important role in learning. A 2010 study out of New York found that mice who were fed live M. vaccae were able to navigate a maze twice as quickly as those who weren’t ( http://gm.asm.org/index.php/scientific-activities/asm- live/archives/394-can- bacteria-make-you- smarter-asmgm- 2010 ).
So what do smarter mice have to do with us? The study demonstrates that mammals (mice have basically the same brain chemistry as us), are able to learn better when they ingest a soil-borne bacteria. This means that playing in the garden actively improves our children’s ability to concentrate, focus, and learn.
I’ve been promoting school gardening for a number of years. Salisbury sponsors school gardens in 17 schools (in 2016) and counting, because I’m passionate about getting kids into the soil.
Historically, advocates like me have relied on anecdotes to get our message across that the kids focus better in class after they’ve been playing in the dirt. Now we have science on our side.