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Garden Your Way to Better Mental Health

May 21, 2018

Spring has come at last, and that means that about one-third of Americans are getting ready to plant a garden. According to the National Gardening Association, the number of households growing their own food has increased by 17 percent over the last decade, with millennials (ages 18 to 34) taking the lead.

That’s great news, because gardening has a whole host of benefits—including better mental health. Researchers are finding that the process of planting, nurturing, and harvesting decreases cortisol (the stress hormone) and increases overall well-being.

Here are a few reasons why:

1. Getting our hands dirty is good for us. Researchers have found a potential link between soil bacteria and stress resilience—via the microbiome, which promotes healthy brain function. Studies with mice are shedding light on the role that the bacteria in our gut play in regulating stress-related changes in physiology, behavior, and brain function. In one study, when mice were inoculated with soil bacteria, the neurons in their brains that produce serotonin were activated (serotonin is a brain chemical; low levels are associated with depression). In other words, getting dirty can actually improve our state of mind.

2. Exposure to nature lifts mood. Simply spending time outside on a regular basis has been shown to decrease levels of stress, depression, and anxiety. And then there’s the magical part of gardening—watching something appear where there was nothing before. The kids I work with in Newport Academy’s horticulture program are often so surprised that the food they’re eating at mealtimes is actually the food they planted and nurtured. That kind of awe and wonder is proven to encourage a more positive outlook, taking us out of our own heads and helping us to focus on something bigger than ourselves.

3. Gardening creates a sense of connection with our food. Growing our own food helps heal a national epidemic of disconnection from the source of what we eat. That disconnection is pretty extreme: One small survey found that more than half of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at an urban school in California didn’t know that pickles were actually cucumbers, or that onions and lettuce were plants. Especially for teens with disordered eating or eating disorders—a population I work with at Newport Academy—growing their own food helps make it less scary and gives them a sense of ownership over what they’re putting in their bodies.

4. You get more nutrition from organic food. If you choose to keep your garden pesticide free, you’ll get more mental (and physical) health benefits out of it. A 2014 meta-analysis compiled the results of more than 300 studies, and found that organic vegetables have substantially higher concentrations of a range of antioxidants and other potentially beneficial compounds. And that’s important for our well-being, because there are specific nutrients in vegetables and fruits that can help prevent or reverse mental health conditions.

5. Taking care of something increases self-esteem and hope. Horticulture therapy is based on the understanding that caring for another living thing and watching it flourish gives people confidence and a sense of purpose and empowerment. In general, science and our own experience show that we’re happier when we spend time focusing on the needs of something outside ourselves. Gardening in particular reminds us that change and renewal are possible—seeds will sprout, the sun will shine, and something beautiful will emerge.

6. Positive habits = more well-being. When we create a daily schedule of routines that support our well-being, we’re filling our days with what Barbara Fredrickson, a leading researcher in the field of positive psychology, calls “micro-moments of positive emotion.” Just as having a dog forces us to walk every day, tending a garden means we have to get outside nearly every day, which means we’re guaranteed to reap all of the benefits of gardening on a regular basis.

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Good food brings people together.
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