I’m sure most of you reading this realize that gardening is a healthy activity. It gets you out in the sun (so your body can make vitamin D), gives your body some exercise (planting, harvesting, weeding), and produces vitamin-rich, healthy food for you and your family. Gardening has also been known to make you feel better – giving you something to care for (and care about) and regaling your eyes with color and beauty. But, did you know that there is now scientific evidence that gardening also improves your immune system, increases intelligence, and decreases depression?
No, that last line was not a shock-value statement. It’s true. Well, it’s not the gardening per se that does those things; it’s the soil. Whether walking in the woods, digging in the yard, or working in your garden, you will get healthy benefits from the soil.
In every square inch of soil, there are about four billion microbes ~ fungi, bacteria, algae, protozoa, nematodes, etc. Any one of these microbes can be beneficial to us because exposure to them helps keep our immune system exercised and healthy, teaching it how to distinguish between harmful pathogens and benign microbes. Unfortunately, our society has turned from being an outside culture to being an inside culture – with ever increasing disdain for things “dirty” and new ways to “kill the germs.” Our modern culture has become bacteria-phobic to the point that our immune systems have been compromised by the sterile lifestyles many of us live. (Ref: The Hygiene Hypothesis)
But dirt doesn’t deserve the bad rap it’s received. Not all bacteria is bad, and soil contains one beneficial bacteria that is astounding scientists for its health benefits. This tiny good guy is called Mycobaterium vaccae, or M. vaccae.
M. vaccae, when ingested or inhaled, has an immediate effect on the body. It triggers the body’s immune cells to release cytokines. These cytokines activate production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is responsible for balancing mood, aiding memory formation, and regulating appetite and sleep, among other things. Pretty important stuff!
A research study on lung cancer patients, performed by Mary O’Brien, found that injections of killed M. vaccae decreased cancer symptoms and had the “side effects” of increased cognitive function, decreased pain and nausea, and better mood. Another researcher, Christopher Lowry, injected M. vaccae into mice and discovered it decreased their stress and anxiety and increased their learning ability. One thing he noted, however, was that the effect on the mice wasn’t permanent; regular injections of the bacteria were necessary to sustain the results.
Besides its ability to increase production of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain, M. vaccae may also have the ability to control allergic reactions and balance the immune system and is now being tested as a treatment for cancer and asthma.
But you don’t have to wait for years of medical research nor spend hundreds of dollars on patented pharmaceuticals to get all the known (and unknown) health benefits of M. vaccae. It’s as close as your backyard and as free as your own soil. So, take a walk in the woods, weed your yard, or plant a garden. Welcome that earthy smell of the soil and inhale deeply, and often. And don’t be afraid to get dirty. That dirt may just be good for what ails you!