Tending Your Mental Health in the Garden

Claire Splan

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As Americans continue to struggle with the various restrictions in place to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, we’ve been seeing other, less visible but still significant maladies take hold. Restlessness, anxiety, and stress due to isolation, lost wages, and school closures have taken a toll on the psyche of the country and driving people outside for exercise and escape. In many areas, this has led to parks and hiking trails so crowded that people can’t maintain the necessary six feet of distance. For some, though, the answer is right in our back yard.

Now, more than ever, we need to get back in the garden.

Some people, fearful of food shortages, are already turning back to the war-time concept of victory gardens, selling out seed supplies and planting rows of edibles. Growing your own fruits and vegetables is easy and healthy and I highly recommend it, but to reap the psychological benefits of gardening, it doesn’t matter at all what you grow. What matters is that you get your hands dirty. The dirtier, the better.

If the idea that something as simple as gardening could improve your mental health sounds too far-fetched, too much like something your grandmother would tell you, you should know that grandma’s got some hard science on her side. Studies have clearly shown that gardening leads to certain chemical reactions in your brain that have significant mood-altering effects.

3 Ways Gardening Affects Your Mood and Mental Health

First, gardening gets you outdoors in the sunshine. Absorption of the sun’s rays triggers your body’s production of Vitamin D, an essential element for bone health and general well-being and something that many of us are likely to become deficient in while we’ve been sheltering in place. Having low levels of Vitamin D has been linked to depression (as well as to a number of serious physical conditions), although it is not clear whether depression is a cause of the Vitamin D deficiency or a result of it. It’s important not to overdo sun exposure, as that can cause skin damage or even skin cancer. But regular, short periods of being out in the sun (10–30 minutes, several times a week) can lead to a notable improvement in mood.

Second, it turns out that all that digging, planting, and weeding can do more than transform the land and build up your muscles. Physical activity such as that used in gardening also produces serotonin, a hormone known to stimulate feelings of contentment and well-being. Additionally, the kind of resistance exercise that is built into these garden chores has been proven to have a wide range of benefits, including improved sleep and increased self-esteem.

Third, actually getting your hands dirty takes it a step further. Mycobacterium vaccae, a bacterium naturally occurring in soil, has been shown to increase the production of serotonin and stimulate the immune systems of mice. Scientists are now studying how this bacterium, which is already used as a vaccine for tuberculosis and a treatment for cancer patients and asthma sufferers, may be used to treat mood disorders. The theory is that contact with the bacterium prompts the body’s immune cells to release cytokines, which activate sensory nerves stimulating the brain. The brain responds by activating serotonin neurons, which, again, lift the mood. Scientists further hypothesize that prolonged exposure to M. vaccae could benefit us by helping us to maintain healthier immune systems and research is underway to see if the bacterium can be used in the development of a “stress vaccine.”

I’m not suggesting that gardening alone will cure serious cases of depression; that requires the attention and guidance of licensed medical or psychiatric professionals. But for most of us dealing with life under the threat of coronavirus, the kind of boost we can get from time spent gardening may be medicine enough.

And this is not a remedy available only to homeowners or suburbanites. Volunteer gardening opportunities abound in most communities. Charitable organizations, community gardens, and urban parks are often in need of volunteers to perform some of the down-and-dirty chores that their own staff members can’t get to. Your own neighbors, particularly the elderly and disabled, may appreciate some help maintaining their gardens.

If climate or other conditions have you limited to indoor activities, houseplants can also provide mental health benefits. Studies have shown that indoor plants can help to reduce stress levels and encourage feelings of well-being in people suffering from depression, anxiety, and even dementia.

These are unusual, even unprecedented, times and there is no single solution to the myriad of personal, social, and economic problems that will result. Anything we can do to wrangle a little more control over our lives and regain some sense of balance is worth doing. Victory gardens may be making a healthy comeback but, for the sake of our mental health, the victory should be measured not by the pounds of tomatoes and carrots harvested but by the amount of dirt under our fingernails.

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Writer/editor. Author of "California Fruit & Vegetable Gardening" and "California Month-by-Month Gardening."

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