Gardener’s secret to fighting depression and boosting immune health

We live in an ever more sanitized world in the U.S. — with increased use of hand sanitizers, harmful household chemicals, and commercial cleaning products, as well as more people being trapped indoors more of the time. Local governments even sanitize our water supply with chlorine that kills both dangerous and beneficial microbes and other constituents. But all of this cleanliness may actually harm our health.

Some experts blame lack of natural exposure to dust, pollen, dirt, and dander in the home with an increase in allergies. And some scientists link the modern increases in chronic health conditions, including autoimmune diseases and depression, with deficiencies in exposure to beneficial soil organisms.

In fact, studies show exposure during early childhood to soil microbes like bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and even insects such as worms support immune system health and psychological development.

But just because you’re too old to make mud pies, doesn’t mean you can’t still reap the benefits of soil…

A little dirt never hurt

Growing a garden and working in the yard benefits your health in many ways. First off, being surrounded by plant life, birds, bees and butterflies uplifts the spirit and reminds us of the wonders of Nature and the Earth’s ecology.

Flowering plants provide a profusion of beauty. But leaves also have their own intricate natural patterns of branching, edging, and veining. Right now, in many parts of the country, leaves are getting ready to give off their own autumn riot of colors.

Second, growing a garden can provide you with organic vegetables, berries and even some fruits. You can also grow herbs, spices and medicinal plants to have your pick of condiments fresh from the garden.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, advised doctors and patients alike to grow their own medicinal herbs. He didn’t trust the apothecaries — and neither should you. Growing your own medicines is a real measure of independence, all of which reduces stress and improves mood.

Third, growing a garden means spending time outside in the fresh air and sunlight. And exposure to sunlight activates vitamin D production in your skin and boosts energy and mood, probably by helping to regulate serotonin and other neurochemicals.

The latest research even shows that contact between the skin and the ground, called “earthing,” literally grounds your body electrically to the geophysical energy of the Earth. Research shows this “earthing” helps keep your electrical ions balanced which is good for your health and well being.

Gardening and yard work is a healthy, physical activity that places you in contact with plants and soil — not the hard, polluted, paved, artificial, manmade surfaces like asphalt or rubber.

Community gardening can be even better. It combines the health benefits of growing a garden out in the sunshine with the social benefits of spending time with people like you, creating something good for body and soul.

But, as it turns out, there are even more reasons that working in the garden is so valuable for your health…

Dig deeper for good health…

Science shows certain microbes in soil benefit your sense of wellbeing. In fact, some soil organisms even act as natural antidepressants. For example, Mycobacterium vaccae, found in soil, activates release of serotonin.

In the brain, serotonin helps regulate learning, libido, memory, mood, sleep, and social behavior. And as I have reported, your GI tract (not just your brain) makes most your body’s serotonin. So we can consider serotonin a hormone as well as a neurotransmitter.

Cancer researchers actually made a serum from the M. vaccae bacteria to give to lung cancer patients to boost their immune systems. They noted that the patients felt happier, had better energy and vitality, and less pain. They went back and extended these observations under more controlled conditions in lab animals and measured lower anxiety, improved cognitive function and learning.

Of course, M. vaccae is just one of many microbes in the soil that probably play a critical role in the development of the normal immune and nervous systems.

Harvest your own good health this season

Now is the time to get ready for the harvest season. Agricultural researchers talk about the “Harvest High,” from the release of the dopamine neurotransmitter in the brain when we harvest produce from the garden.

Some scientists propose we developed this response over a million years ago as hunter-gatherers before the development of agriculture about 10,000 years ago. The act of gathering food releases a flush of dopamine in the reward center of the brain, creating a sense of bliss or euphoria. Picking and gathering the natural produce — or even just seeing a ripe berry or fruit — triggers this dopamine response in humans.

You have this simple, natural antidepressant available to you in your own backyard. You can even use a window box or planter. Plant a variety of seeds. Avoid all chemicals and pesticides. Let the birds, bees and butterflies flourish, adding their sounds to the late summer. Nourish the soil with plant matter, digging with your hands, and harvesting and eating the bounty.

If you missed the opportunity to plant a garden this summer, visit a pick-your-own farm this August. Right now there are plenty of heirloom tomatoes, peppers, squash and peaches ripe for the picking, with apples and pears to come.