photo: Lee Sayer with Aimee
British study shows gardening can ward off depression and improve your mood
If you’re feeling a little down, don’t reach for a glass of wine – grab your trowel and head to the flowerbeds instead.
A spot of gardening will lift your spirits, a study suggests. More than 90 per cent of gardeners think it improves their mood, according to a survey for Gardeners’ World magazine. It also found that gardeners are less likely to display signs associated with unhappiness or depression. The poll of 1,500 adults in the UK found that 80 per cent of gardeners feel satisfied with their lives compared with 67 per cent of non-gardeners.
The most popular hobby in the UK is computing or gaming, with 52 per cent of respondents naming it as their favourite pastime. But gardening came joint second, along with walking or hiking, at 43 per cent.
Keeping busy with any pastime, though, is important – of those with no hobbies, only 55 per cent were satisfied with their lives.
Professor of environment and society at the University of Essex, Jules Pretty, said: ‘Scientific research at a number of universities, including at the University of Essex, now clearly shows that engagement with green places is good for personal health. We also know that short-term mental health improvements are protective of long-term health benefits.
‘We thus conclude that there would be a large potential benefit to individuals, society and to the costs of the health service if all groups of people were to self-medicate more with what we at Essex call green exercise.
‘Gardening falls into this category – it is good for both mental and physical health, and all social and age groups benefit. It provides a dose of nature.
photo: Lee Sayer
Getting down and dirty is the best ‘upper’ – Serotonin
While mental health experts warn about depression as a global epidemic, other researchers are discovering ways we trigger our natural production of happy chemicals that keep depression at bay, with surprising results. All you need to do is get your fingers dirty and harvest your own food.
In recent years I’ve come across two completely independent bits of research that identified key environmental triggers for two important chemicals that boost our immune system and keep us happy – serotonin and dopamine. What fascinated me as a permaculturist and gardener were that the environmental triggers happen in the garden when you handle the soil and harvest your crops
Getting your hands dirty in the garden can increase your serotonin levels – contact with soil and a specific soil bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae, triggers the release of serotonin in our brain according to research. Serotonin is a happy chemical, a natural anti-depressant and strengthens the immune system. Lack of serotonin in the brain causes depression.
Ironically, in the face of our hyper-hygienic, germicidal, protective clothing, obsessive health-and-safety society, there’s been a lot of interesting research emerging in recent years regarding how good dirt is for us, and dirt-deficiency in childhood is implicated in contributing to quite a spectrum of illnesses including allergies, asthma and mental disorders.
At least now I have a new insight into why I compulsively garden without gloves and have always loved the feeling of getting my bare hands into the dirt and compost heap.
photo: Lee Sayer
Harvest ‘High’ – Dopamine
Another interesting bit of research relates to the release of dopamine in the brain when we harvest products from the garden. The researchers hypothesise that this response evolved over nearly 200,000 years of hunter gathering, that when food was found (gathered or hunted) a flush of dopamine released in the reward centre of brain triggered a state of bliss or mild euphoria. The dopamine release can be triggered by sight (seeing a fruit or berry) and smell as well as by the action of actually plucking the fruit.
The contemporary transference of this brain function and dopamine high has now been recognised as the biological process at play in consumers addiction or compulsive shopping disorder. Of course the big retail corporations are using the findings to increase sales by provoking dopamine triggers in their environments and advertising.
I have often remarked on the great joy I feel when I forage in the garden, especially when I discover and harvest the ‘first of the season’, the first luscious strawberry to ripen or emergence of the first tender asparagus shoot. (and yes, the photo is my hand plucking a deliciously sweet strawberry in my garden) I have also often wondered why I had a degree of inherent immunity to the retail-therapy urges that afflict some of my friends and acquaintances. Maybe as a long-term gardener I’ve been getting a constant base-load dopamine high which has reduced the need to seek other ways to appease this primal instinct. Though, I must admit with the benefit of hindsight, I now have another perspective on my occasional ‘shopping sprees’ at local markets buying plants for the garden.
Of course dopamine responses are triggered by many other things and is linked with addictive and impulsive behaviour. I suppose the trick is to rewire our brains to crave the dopamine hit from the garden and other more sustainable pursuits and activities. As a comment on PlanetDrum stated, “all addiction pathways are the same no matter what the chemical. As long as you feel rewarded you reinforce the behavior to get the reward.”
So in other words it all comes down to the fact that we can’t change our craving nature but we CAN change the nature of what we crave.
photo: Lee Sayer
Strengthening the Case for Organic
Glyphosate residues deplete your Serotonin and Dopamine levels
Of course, for all of the above to work effectively and maintain those happy levels of serotonin and dopamine, there’s another prerequisite according to another interesting bit of research I found. It appears it will all work much better with organic soil and crops that haven’t been contaminated with Roundup or Glyphosate-based herbicides. This proviso also extends to what you eat, so ideally you’ll avoid consuming non-organic foods that have been grown in farmland using glyphosates.
A recent study in 2008 discovered that glyphosate, the active ingredient of Roundup, depletes serotonin and dopamine levels in mammals. Contrary to Monsanto claims, glyphosate and other Roundup ingredients do perpetuate in the environment, in soil, water, plants and in the cells and organs of animals. One study found glyphosate residues in cotton fabric made from Roundup-ready GM cotton can absorb into the skin and into our nervous and circulatory systems.
No wonder there’s so much depression around, and stress, and all the addictions and compulsive disorders in the pursuit of feeling good. I think back on when I moved to Sydney in 1984 for a few years and was contacting community centres in the inner west to see if there was interest in permaculture or gardening classes. A very terse social worker snapped at me “listen dear, we don’t need gardening classes, we need stress therapy classes”, and promptly hung up on me with a resounding “Huh!” when I replied that gardening was the best stress therapy I knew.
So enjoy the garden, fresh organic food and make sure you have fun playing in the dirt on a regular basis.
Robyn Francis 2010
Robyn Francis is an international permaculture designer, educator, writer and pioneer based at Djanbung Gardens, Nimbin Northern NSW. She is principal of Permaculture College Australia.
photo: Lee Sayer
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Here’s some interesting sites and extracts for further info and reading
Glyphosate Report PDF
fhrfarms1.com/docs/…/Gly%20monograph%20PANAP%204-10.pdf An in-depth and comprehensive report of independent research on impacts and effects of Glyphosate and Roundup published by Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific, Nov 2009
photo: Lee Sayer
Soil Bacteria Work In Similar Way To Antidepressants
UK scientists suggest that a type of friendly bacteria found in soil may affect the brain in a similar way to antidepressants. Their findings are published in the early online edition of the journal Neuroscience.
photo: Lee Sayer
Soil bacteria can boost immune system
Harmless bug works as well as antidepressant drugs, study suggests
EXTRACT: Exposure to friendly soil bacteria could improve mood by boosting the immune system just as effectively as antidepressant drugs, a new study suggests.
The researchers suspect, however, that the microbes are affecting the brain indirectly by causing immune cells to release chemicals called cytokines. “We know that some of these cytokines can activate the nerves that relay signals from the body to the brain,” Lowry said in a telephone interview.
The stimulated nerves cause certain neurons in the brain to release a chemical called serotonin into the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain known to be involved in mood regulation, among other things.
Scientists think the lack of serotonin in the brain is thought to cause depression in people.
Previous studies have linked early childhood exposure to bacteria to protection against allergies and asthma in adulthood. The new finding take this idea, called the “hygiene hypothesis,” a step further, and suggests bacteria-exposure not only boosts our immune systems, but alters our vulnerability to conditions such as depression as well.
“These studies help us understand how the body communicates with the brain and why a healthy immune system is important for maintaining mental health,” Lowry said. “They also leave us wondering if we shouldn’t all be spending more time playing in the dirt.”
photo: Lee Sayer
“Selfish behaviors are reward driven and innate, wired deeply into the survival mechanisms of the primitive brain, and when consistently reinforced, they will run away to greed, with its associated craving for money, food, or power. On the other hand, the self restraint and the empathy for others that are so important in fostering physical and mental health are learned behaviors – largely functions of the new human cortex and thus culturally dependent. These social behaviors are fragile and learned by imitations much as we learn language”. Dr. Peter Whybrow – “American Mania”
Some interesting insights and food for thought…
Status and Curiosity – On the Origins of Oil Addiction by Nate Hagens
The various layers and mechanisms of our brain were built on top of each other, via millions and millions of iterations, keeping intact what ‘worked’ and adding on what changes and mutations helped the pre-human, pre-mammal organism incrementally advance. … We are, all of us, descended from the best of the best at surviving and procreating, which in the environment of privation and danger where we endured the most ‘iterations’ of our evolution, meant acquiring necessary resources, achieving status, and possessing brains finely tuned to natural dangers and opportunities. In our modern environment, it is the combination of pursuit of social status and the plethora of fun, exciting/novel activities that underlies our large appetite for oil.
research tells us that drugs of abuse activate the brain’s mesolimbic dopamine reward system, the neural network that regulates our ability to feel pleasure and be motivated for “more”. When we have a great experience… our brain experiences a surge in the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine. We feel positively charged, warm, ‘in the zone’ and happy. After a while, the dopamine gets flushed out of our system and returns to it’s baseline level. We go about our lives, looking forward to the next pleasurable experience.
Hagens also muses that “There is anecdotal evidence that the typical american diet high in processed starches and sugar robs us of our baseline serotonin – the zen master of brain neurotransmitters. Lack of serotonin makes us more susceptible to cravings/behavioural changes and throws the reward machinery out of whack. Food we buy/eat is available at stores and restaurants because a)it is profitable b)it is convenient and c)it tastes good. I suspect that future changes in diet towards more vegetables and less processed food might improve our collective addictions/impulsivity.
photo: Lee Sayer
“The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just the body, but the soul.” – Alfred Austin
Gardeners have been knowing for centuries that their pastime gives them joy and peace. Many people will say that gardening is stress therapy. There is even a group called the American Horticultural Therapy Association“committed to promoting and developing the practice of horticultural therapy as a unique and dynamic human service modality.”
As with so many things, science introduces us to the physical wonders behind what we already know on a subliminal level. There are two interesting pieces of research that give credence to the feeling that our bodies and souls are better off from gardening.
Researchers reported in the journal Neuroscience that contact with a soil bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccaetriggers the release of serotonin in the brain. This type of serotonin acts on several different pathways including mood and learning. Lack of serotonin in the brains is related to depression.
So basically, the things we do as gardeners—working the soil, planting, mulching, and so forth—can really contribute to happiness. We ingest the bacteria by breathing or through broken skin. The simple act of children playing outside in the grass and dirt can be a natural way for them to reduce anxiety.
photo: Lee Sayer
In addition to increasing happiness and reducing anxiety, serotonin has positive effects on memory and learning. Research presented at the American Society for Microbiology shows that feeding live M. vaccae bacteria to mice significantly improved their ability to navigate mazes, due to the fact that the bacteria triggers the release of brain serotonin. It appears that this bacterium plays a role in learning in mammals.
Have you noticed that you feel really happy when picking those ripe vegetables, especially that first tomato of the season? Well, it turns out that harvesting fruits and vegetables triggers the release of dopamine in the brain. It is speculated that this evolved over 200,000 years of humans harvesting food as hunter-gatherers. Dopamine is strongly correlated with reward-motivated behavior.
So there we have it, two physical reasons why people can be happier and smarter through gardening. I suspect there are several other other reasons contributing to this, including the myriad of colors in plants and animals, trees swaying in the wind, birds singing, squirrels chattering, lady beetles, and fresh air. Perhaps one day we’ll have scientific explanations for all this, but in the meantime we can take comfort in our innate feelings.
SO WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?
photo: Lee Sayer
By Justin Gardener, REALfarmacy.com
American Society for Microbiology. “Can bacteria make you smarter?.” ScienceDaily, 25 May 2010. Web. 20 Jul. 2013.