How gardening can boost your serotonin levels
There's been quite a lot of discussion regarding depression and serotonin levels in recent years. Serotonin, the chemical in our brains responsible for mood regulation and overall emotional balance, is often linked to depression when levels fall out of a healthy range and can sometimes require chemical boosting in order to restore more healthy numbers. However, there has been promising research suggesting gardening can help boost these levels naturally.
Mycobacterium vaccae are a family of harmless bacteria that live within the soil. These bacteria are responsible for normal soil functioning and ensure vegetation is able to grow within their conditions. However, studies published in the Neuroscience journal of March, 2007 suggest that being exposed to these bacteria can help alleviate many common ailments and trigger serotonin production to help combat depression.
However, arguments exist on how exactly these bacteria are absorbed. Some schools of thought believe that the key to interacting with this bacteria is to inhale it in order to absorb it into the bloodstream. Others believe that the bacteria can simply be absorbed through the skin. Whatever the case may be, simply getting out and interacting with a garden should be more than enough to absorb these friendly bacteria through some mode of transmission.
This theory was tested by Christopher Lowry, a neuroscientist at the University of Bristol in England. Lowry's test on lab mice suggested that there's a physical response to exposure of mycobacterium vaccae. The area of the brain that focuses on mood regulation, the dorsal raphe nucleus, was particularly active in treated mice. There was also an observed elevation in the amount of serotonin available in the prefrontal cortex. This is all promising research based on these findings, but it's important to take them with a grain of salt. While lab mice have shown comparability to the human body, they aren't necessarily the most authoritative research specimens and this research in general is still in its preliminary stages. It should by no means be taken as accepted fact.
Further studies into the matter of mood elevation suggest that gardening, specifically berry picking, can release dopamine: the feel-good chemical associated with being in love and other activities that excite us. While there are no conclusive facts that have been drawn from these studies, there's absolutely no reason why we can't dig into our sheds and get a hold of our gardening gloves to start a harvest.
The idea behind this study is focused on the idea of reward. When gardeners pick berries (or feasibly harvest any fruit or vegetable), it's believed the brain is sent signals of reward: a healthy harvest, fresh fruit being available, an immediate source of nourishment, etc. When these signals are interpreted by the brain, dopamine is released to elevate our moods.
It's also important to note that the idea of being out and doing things that are both relaxing and enjoyable has grounded research for the boosting of serotonin. This doesn't necessarily mean that working with soil has any direct correlation with the idea of serotonin boosting, but it by no means disproves the idea either. The most important thing to take into consideration is whether or not gardening provides any particular joy for the participant, which for many of us it does and this is by far the most rewarding benefit of them all. Taking part in the activities that bring us joy is believed to be the best method of combating depression. Whether or not there is a direct serotonin boost through gardening is still a raging debate.
Things to Consider
Gardeners who suffer from depression should by no means immediately discontinue any prescribed treatments by medical professionals. While the research being conducted into the study shows very promising results, they're not being widely accepted by the medical community at large and it will take further research before it becomes the general norm. Of course, gardeners should always take this as an excuse to get out there and maintain their gardens while reaping all of the personal rewards that gardening brings: relaxation, an enjoyable hobby, and a brief escape from the monotony of day-to-day life.