By Debra Knapke
As Michael pointed out in his post, You H.A.V.E. to Garden (April 17, 2013), there are many reasons why we have to garden and why we have to spread the word about the benefits of gardening, not only for ourselves, but also for the world.
My family knows that when it’s been a bad day or if I have a decision to make or if I just need to think — I will go out into the garden and weed, plant or putter. Putting my hands in the soil is calming. I can be present in the moment and let my mind become still and untangled. This is not unique to me. Other gardeners report that being in the garden is calming, thought-ordering, life-changing. So, the question is: Why?
Sometimes it is the small things in life that are important. In an experimental lung cancer treatment, researchers found that a soil-borne bacterium, Mycobacterium vaccae, reduced the symptoms of the cancer and seemed to increase the vitality, positive attitudes and cognitive functions of participants in the trial. Dr. Christopher Lowry, a neuroscientist at Bristol University, continued the research with mice to look into this bacterial reason for the patients’ mental and emotional well-being. His research was corroborated by Dorothy Matthews and Susan Jenks, at the Sage Colleges in New York. According to their studies, Mycobacterium vaccae increases the levels of serotonin in the brains of mice. The researchers believe that it has a similar effect on humans and thus appears to increase a sense of well-being in us.
Serotonin, found in animal digestive tracts and central nervous systems, has been called the “happiness hormone.” It affects many of our life functions: mood, learning, sleep, and the constriction of blood vessels. Low levels have been correlated with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, appetite and sleep disorders, migraines, and digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome. There is also considerable evidence for a connection between low levels of serotonin and SIDS. Would it be stretching the imagination to think that by walking in the garden and smelling freshly turned soil we can increase the happiness in our lives?
As gardeners, we not only smell it, but we get a bigger dose through skin-to-bacterium contact. Is this why so many gardeners tend to be happy? Unfortunately, the research has shown that the effect is temporary, two to three weeks.
So, here is your prescription: go out into the garden and renew your acquaintance with Mycobacterium vaccae at least once a week for 30-60 minutes; the more, the better.