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Can gardening cure depression?

Sunday, May 27, 2012 by: David Gutierrez, staff writer
Tags: gardening, depression, health

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(NaturalNews) Organic gardening may produce physiological changes to boost your physical and mental health, a number of studies suggest.

One such change may take place as a result of the simple act of putting your hands into the soil. A study conducted by researchers from the University of Bristol in London found that contact with a naturally occurring species of soil bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae, causes the body to release vital immune chemicals called cytokines. These, in turn, spur the brain to produce the neurotransmitter serotonin.

"We know that some of these cytokines can activate the nerves that relay signals from the body to the brain," researcher Chris Lowry said.

This effect may explain, in part, why people who are not exposed to dirt in childhood have higher rates of allergies, asthma and even mental health issues as adults.

In spite of what the drug companies would have you believe, there is no real evidence that serotonin affects mood directly. However, it is certainly an essential neurotransmitter that appears related to immune function, and the study's results are highly suggestive.

"These studies help us understand how the body communicates with the brain and why a healthy immune system is important for maintaining mental health," Lowry said. "They also leave us wondering if we shouldn't all be spending more time playing in the dirt."

Get Addicted to Gardening

In unconnected research, scientists have found that the simple act of picking fruit or vegetables, whether from a garden or in the wild, causes the brain to release the "pleasure chemical" dopamine, which activates the brain's reward centers. Dopamine is also released from seeing, smelling or eating a pleasurable food.

Indeed, dopamine plays a role in all pleasurable experiences and is thought to be responsible for much of the physical component of addictive behaviors, including compulsive shopping. Researchers believe that our brains evolved to reward us for important behaviors such as finding foods, and that our modern environment of abundance has allowed these psychological mechanisms to be co-opted into unhealthy patterns.

"I have often remarked on the great joy I feel when I forage in the garden, especially when I discover and harvest the 'first of the season', the first luscious strawberry to ripen or emergence of the first tender asparagus shoot," commented writer Robyn Francis on permaculture.com. "I have also often wondered why I had a degree of inherent immunity to the retail-therapy urges that afflict some of my friends and acquaintances. Maybe as a long-term gardener I've been getting a constant base-load dopamine high which has reduced the need to seek other ways to appease this primal instinct."

"I suppose the trick is to rewire our brains to crave the dopamine hit from the garden and other more sustainable pursuits and activities," she added

For those interested in garden therapy, it's worth noting a 2008 study that suggested gardening with herbicides may not supply the same benefits. As a matter of fact, it seems even eating non-organic food may place your mood at risk. Researchers found that glyphosate, the active ingredient in the popular herbicide Roundup, actually lowers your body's levels of both serotonin and dopamine.

Because Roundup and its ingredients build up in the environment and may even be absorbed through the skin, it is also best to avoid non-organic foods, particularly those likely to be engineered for Roundup resistance, such as corn and soy.

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