Down in the Dumps
Next time you are feeling a bit down in the dumps, get down in the mud. Its official, mucking around in the garden beds and borders can alter brain function to keep you feeling happy. It has been known for generations that the great outdoors was a healthy place. In the past, patients in institutions would have farm work, gardening, and recreation outside as a standard part of treatment. Van Gogh produced some stunning outdoor paintings while at Saint-Remy sat on a chair in the garden looking at the scenery. Now there’s scientific evidence that to back up the theory that microbes in the soil are a natural antidepressant.
The microbes in soil tweak the same neurons that are stimulated by Prozac and other antidepressants. The soil -Prozac connection surfaced a couple of years ago from Dr. Chris Lowry and his colleagues at the University of Bristol and University College London. They exposed lung cancer patients to a common, inoffensive microbe called Mycobacterium vaccae, found in soil. The patients unexpectedly reported increases in their quality of life, including a brighter mood. The researchers wondered if this effect was caused by stimulation of neurons in the patients' brains that produce serotonin, a feel-good chemical.
The scientists said that one might derive soils benefit directly by rooting around in a vegetable garden, or by eating lettuce or carrots picked from that garden.
The soil-Prozac connection fits with a recent idea in medicine called the "hygiene hypothesis." According to this concept, exposure early in life to the bacteria, fungi, and viruses found in common, everyday soil is necessary to stimulate our immune system. When children are exposed to the stew of microbes in dirt, their immune systems become stronger. The immune system also learns to ignore substances like pollen or the dandruff of pets, which can trigger asthma and allergies.
Researchers have shown, for example, that children who grow up in dirty environments such as farms have a lower incidence of infections, asthma, allergies, and eczema later in life, compared to those raised in urban environments in which parents try to keep them squeaky clean and bombard them with antibacterial sprays and wipes constantly.
Dr Larry Dossey wrote recently “For a century and a half we have waged merciless war on filth through public health measures such as public sanitation systems and water purification programs. These developments have been enormously successful. The increase in lifespan in modern societies is due largely to the reduction of death rates from diseases such as typhoid and cholera, which in nineteenth-century were called "filth diseases."
“We have to wonder, however, if we have gone too far in our obsession with hygiene. Throughout our evolutionary history our ancestors lived in intimate contact with dirt, and its influence, we now see, was not all bad. We evolved in the outdoors, and we are beginning to glimpse the price we are paying for shutting ourselves off from nature.”
All we need to do is go for a walk in the woods, grub around in our vegetable garden, or weed our flowerbeds, we get a dose of the good bugs simply by inhaling, so breathe deeply when you garden!
Nature deficiency disorder
Nature deficiency disorder has been proposed as a term for the problems we create when we build a wall between the natural world and ourselves. Dr Dossey is highly susceptible to this malady. “When I spend too much time indoors, I become increasingly moody and morose. There's only one cure: take a hike, go camping, or root around in my veggie garden. These activities are more than a hobby; they have become an essential part of my life and an important element in my personal health plan.”
Antidepressant medication can sometimes be a treatment of choice. It can work wonders, and in some instances can be life-saving. But if your doctor advises you to get dirty in the beds and borders instead of taking a pill to perk up your mood, you know they are on the cutting edge of the healthy gardening revolution, go with it.