It’s time to whip out your gardening gloves because not only are digging and weeding great exercise, a good stint of gardening boosts mental health too.
Last month, we found out that people living in an area rich in vegetation have improved physical and mental health, and 30% of the overall morality benefit from living near vegetation came from lower levels of depression. So now, we want to delve a little deeper into how gardening is being implemented to improve people’s health.
Professor Tim Lang, Centre for Food Policy at City University London says it’s widely recognised that regular contact with plants, animals and the natural environment can improve our physical health and mental wellbeing.
‘For the large number of people in our society – children and adults – who live with challenging physical or mental health problems, gardening and community food growing can be especially beneficial,’ explained Professor Lang.
‘Such activities can relieve the symptoms of serious illnesses, prevent the development of some conditions, and introduce people to a way of life that can help them to improve their well-being in the longer term. And even if you are feeling fine, gardening is… well, just a very nice thing to do.’
What is gardening therapy?
GPs in London have already started to prescribe gardening time, with the help of Lambeth GP Food Co-operative, which aims to harness the physical and mental therapeutic benefits of gardening while growing more local produce.
It was launched in 2013 at the Brockwell Park Surgery, South London but is now present at several GP surgeries across the borough where unused outdoor space is turned into gardens for patients to grow fruit and vegetables.
Ed Rosen, it’s director, says,
‘We began this with a specific focus on patients with long-term health conditions, such as diabetes, arthritis and asthma. Our patients tend to be older as they have developed long term health conditions later in life.
‘They also tend to be more socially isolated and lonely than younger people because often their partners have died or their families have moved away. So we wanted to create a health generating activity that people will enjoy.’
Why is gardening therapy good for you?
1. Soil is actually an antidepressant
Soil has been found to have similar effects on the brain as antidepressants to lift mood. A study by the University of Bristol and colleagues at University College London looked at how mice exposed to ‘friendly’ bacteria normally found in soil, altered their behaviour in a similar way to that produced by an antidepressant.
Dr Chris Lowry, lead author on the paper, said: ‘These studies help us understand how the body communicates with the brain and why a healthy immune system is important for maintaining mental health. They also leave us wondering if we shouldn’t all be spending more time playing in the dirt.’
When the team looked closely at the brains of mice, they found treatment with the bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae activated a group of neurons that produce the brain chemical serotonin, which regulates mood. Gardeners inhale the bacteria and have physical contact with it.
The natural effects of the soil bacteria can be felt for up to three weeks, if the experiments with rats are any indication. Mycobacterium antidepressant microbes in soil are also being investigated for improving cognitive function, Crohn’s disease and even rheumatoid arthritis.
2. It incorporates mindfulness
You might feel too busy for mindfulness, but research shows it can have a huge impact on your stress levels, helping to stave off anxiety, slash depression risk, boost productivity and ease insomnia.
Hilda Burke, psychotherapist, says that gardening is an activity that seems to help a lot of people get into a ‘flow’ state. This means that you don’t notice the time passing, aren’t simultaneously thinking over other things, making plans or rehashing the past. As such it helps people both to switch off to other stuff and switch on to the present moment.
In other words, to be more mindful.’What makes gardening unique and sets it apart from other activities such as baking say or knitting is that it quite literally connects us to the earth. Working with soil, planting things, being patient, nurturing our seedlings offers a valuable lesson for our personal lives.
‘How often do we feel bogged down with stuff we’d rather not get our hands dirty with? Yet by being patient, loving and nurturing of ourselves we, like the gardens we tend, can blossom and grow!’
3. It boosts brain health
Gardening exercises your mind as well as your body. It utilises a number of our brain functions and includes learning, problem solving and sensory awareness, keeping our minds active. A number of studies have shown the benefits of therapeutic gardens for patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s.
One particular study, published in the Psychiatry Investigation, said the benefits of horticultural therapy included a reduction of pain, improvement in attention, lessening of stress and a reduction in falls.
The charity Thrive uses gardening to help people with a range of mental health problems, including soldiers experiencing post-traumatic stress. Its recent research with early-onset dementia patients showed that, over a year, participants’ memory and concentration remained unchanged, but that mood and sociability improved.