The Health Benefits of Gardening

happy woman in the garden

Gardening has long been recognized as a therapeutic pastime. A great tool to sooth the stresses and strains of life. In ancient Egypt, physicians prescribed convalescing patients, and those with mental health problems, long periods outside in the garden.

As any gardener will tell you, one of the best ways to de-stress is to get in the garden and start weeding, or potting on seedlings or dig those veg beds. Studies have shown that exercise stimulates endorphins and other neurotransmitters such as cytokines, which control the release of serotonin. We all now know how serotonin affects our mood, but it is also linked to many systems in our bodies. It is a major part of our immune system and is closely linked to our digestive system. Conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and bipolar problems are believed to be affected by serotonin levels.

But can gardening actually cure an illness? Well, there is evidence from a study on a soil-borne bacterium called Mycobacterium vaccine, that shows increased levels of serotonin in mice that have ingested this bacteria. A naturally found antidepressant that is harmless, and easily taken in through contact with the soil. Lung cancer victims have stated a better quality of life with less nausea and pain after being treated with M.vaccae. There have also been studies on skin allergies, that show this soil bacteria is effective in easing symptoms. Studies are also being conducted into whether this treatment will improve cognitive function, help treat Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

A separate piece of research is going into dopamine, the feel-good chemical released by our brains. The researchers are saying that as hunter-gatherers hundreds of thousands of years ago, when we found food our brains released dopamine, putting us into a relaxed, happy state of mind with a mild sense of euphoria. This release can be set off by picking fruit, smelling food or even just seeing it. This reward was a way of making the often arduous task of collecting food something we wanted to do.

Fast forward to today and dopamine is still craved, it is hard-wired into our brains. But we no longer need to search for our food, so we transfer to other less healthy options to get that reward. Recognized as the driving force behind compulsive shopping disorder, and linked to other more serious addictions, we biologically need the feel-good factor that dopamine highs give. Replacing one addiction with another is a controversial subject. But it seems that we all have the need for feeling good, and that comes from a chemical substance being released into the reward center of our brains. Ask any gardener that grows fruit and veg how it feels when they start cropping. You feel great the rush you get is clean and healthy, and you haven’t even eaten the produce yet. So maybe we should start to recognize that some addictions are good for you. There are many doctors out there that are now referring mental health patients to therapeutic gardening projects as an alternative to drug therapy. Obesity is a condition that can also be reversed by gardening as a gentle self-paced exercise weight can be reduced, and with the endorphins released the cravings for food are also reduced. The more you enjoy gardening, the more you do, so the greater the benefit.

So getting your hands dirty seems to be very beneficial to your health. While it may not be an outright cure, coupled with other treatments it does work. Even tending a very small plot nurtures your soul, we are a caring species and raising plants fulfills that urge we all have. So even if you only have a balcony, plant up some containers and reap the health benefits almost immediately. If you don’t have any outdoor space available, there are community gardens, clubs, and allotments. Join the resurging movement and get back to a connection with nature. You don’t have to be green-fingered to reap the rewards, the gardening world is full of experienced gardeners willing to advise and help you on the road to horticultural nirvana. Gardening is medicine for the whole body, mind, and soul. So get digging.

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