Why is gardening so good for the body and soul? It could be the soil

Gardeners know growing plants is great for your health, and now science is showing us some of the reasons why.

Words: Kristina Jensen

I’ve been thinking lately about what makes gardening and growing food so satisfying. There’s plenty of research which shows working in a garden, interacting with the soil, following the seasons, and seeing the beauty of nature first-hand, has a positive effect on your mental state.

Christopher Lowry is an associate professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado. His work has found a soil bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae has a significant impact on mental health. One of its molecules, the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic fatty acid, seems to block receptors that become inflamed when a person is under stress. Mice given this fatty acid were far more resilient to stress, showing lower levels of depression and anxiety, than mice without it.

“We think there’s a ‘special sauce’ driving the protective effects in this bacterium, and this fat is one of the main ingredients,” says Dr Lowry.

His work is now looking at whether the fatty acid can be used in a ‘stress vaccine’ to help people suffering from PTSD, such as soldiers, police, and other emergency service staff. “This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil, but there are millions of other strains.

“We’re just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which (soil bacteria) have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us.”

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It confirms my observations. Gardening calms me and helps me to reflect upon problems – my own, the world’s, even NZ Lifestyle Block articles – in a constructive manner.

Research also shows you absorb immune-boosting microbes from the earth when you weed and cultivate without gloves on. In my case, that’s because I often can’t find them. And this is before I proudly carry the day’s harvest into the kitchen. Another delight of the garden is it will always surprise you, and one of the biggest surprises at this time of year is the marrow. They just show up. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve gone out to the garden to get a couple of zucchinis and discovered a marrow that wasn’t there the day before.

The plant creates a lovely protection system with big leaves to capture sunlight, feeding and nurturing the fruit. It makes me wonder what our lives would look like if we experienced the same sort of tranquility and support as a marrow?

These are the sorts of things that chug around my head while I’m weeding and mulching. I believe this type of reflection is crucial. I don’t want to get too ‘doom and gloom’ before you head off to make a batch of this delicious chutney, but I believe that this kind of earthly connection is vital for the world. You need to love something so much that you’ll do everything you can to help it be the best it can be.

Source: Healthy, stress-busting fat found hidden in dirt, May 2019, www.colorado.edu

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NZ Lifestyle Block This article first appeared in NZ Lifestyle Block Magazine.
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