Digging in the dirt may just be nature’s answer to antidepressants. A recent study suggests that a common type of bacteria found in soil can actually lift your spirits.
Researchers at England’s Bristol University injected samples of Mycobacterium vaccae into lab mice and studied the effects on their brains and behaviour. They found that exposure to this microbe seems to stimulate the brain to produce higher levels of serotonin, resulting in a feeling of well-being. In other words, this little bug may be a big mood-booster.
Lead researcher and neuroscientist Chris Lowry says that for us to get regular exposure, we have to inhale the soil dust – or swallow it. “That sounds ridiculous, but if you’re eating fresh vegetables from the garden, then you’re consuming bacteria.” Even our drinking water contains the bacteria.
But Lowry admits that more research needs to be done. In any case, he says the microbes probably only partly explain why working in a garden or hiking a wooded trail can make us feel so good. Psychologist Heather Hadjistavropoulos of Regina, Saskatchewan, points out that factors like sunshine and physical exercise are known to lift mood. So does that sense of accomplishment when your well-tended butterfly bush bursts into bloom.
And any activity that forces us to slow down and be mindful of our surroundings, like a nature walk, is bound to be rewarding. “Most of us have very busy lives,” Hadjistavropoulos says. “This solitude can be a time of renewal emotionally.”
Gardening expert and HGTV host Denis Flanagan adores playing in the dirt. “Gardening is a simple pleasure,” he says. “There’s something very satisfying about being on the end of a gardening hoe for a couple of hours and weeding a little bed out. It’s very therapeutic.”
Of course, inhaling a little Mycobacterium vaccae in the process certainly isn’t going to hurt. The bacterium has already been injected into U.K. cancer patients by other researchers to successfully reduce pain and nausea, and it is currently being looked at as a treatment for immune disorders such as psoriasis and allergies.
If it can give us bliss when we’re in our own backyards, all the better.
How can you get down and dirty? Here are some tips from the experts:
- Volunteer in a community garden
If you know of a community garden in Canada, you can add it to the North American database at communitygarden.org so others can benefit.
Help your local school’s gardening club, or hike with the scout troop.
Visit municipal gardens and parks. In winter, check out public greenhouses.
Bring the outdoors in! Surround yourself with houseplants.
Show up at a garden tradeshow.
Make mud pies – good, clean fun at any age!