By Suzanne Duval d'Adrian
One of the things I most look forward to in the spring is visiting the garden center and nursery. I practically count the days down until I can see the plants stocked outside with their welcoming blooms. It’s all just so exciting — and I suspect that more than a few people around me share the sentiment. Getting my hands into the dirt just makes me feel good. It’s relaxing and soothing.
Up until now I hadn't thought much further than that — when in fact, a lot of natural chemical processes are happening within our body the moment our hands dig into the soil.
Some studies have shown that the chemicals in the soil can help battle depression. Naturally-occurring bacteria in the soil trigger the production of cytokines, or immune chemicals, which then kickstart the production of serotonin. Lower levels of this neurotransmitter are often associated with depression, while the more serotonin you’ve got in your system, the more likely you are to be cheerful and capable of taking everyday stress in stride.
Picking the fruit or veggie that you’ve grown yourself makes you feel good, right? It doesn’t matter if it’s roughly the size of a thimble — you grew it yourself! That sense of pride taps directly into our pleasure center. It makes us happy and stimulates the production of dopamine, another neurotransmitter closely associated with feelings of pleasure and happiness. So, once we pick the pea-sized green pepper we’ve just spent two weeks watching closely, we go on our merry way — feeling good for the rest of the day.
Spending time outdoors also allows you to absorb vitamin D from the sun’s rays — not too much of course, because that’s an entirely different article. In moderation, vitamin D helps support your intestines in absorbing the vitamins and minerals it needs to take in on a daily basis. It also contributes to normal and healthy bone maintenance, boosts the immune system and may be credited with maintaining some key cognitive functions.
By doing something as relaxing and enjoyable as gardening, we can also affect production of stress hormones like cortisol. Known primarily for increased swelling around the midsection, this hormone has been associated with a host of health-related ailments, including heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke. When we produce less of it, we’re calmer — and healthier.
With the stressful deadlines and heavy, daily doses of technology we all face, gardening offers an instant off-switch, allowing us to reconnect with our inner self and with the world around us. It provides that healthy respite we’re all so desperately searching for. Each of us suffers from varying degrees of attention fatigue, the general exhaustion that comes from concentrating on a multitude of things at once, often making it more difficult to accomplish anything at all. A recent study found that gardening not only gives us a different focus point, but it can also negate and even reverse that stubborn attention fatigue. Our focus on the day-to-day stressors is removed and instead, it’s redirected to the repetitive actions of planting and tending to the seedlings and young buds.
At the end of the planting process, there’s a definite level of work in the upkeep — pruning and watering and plucking. But when I get the chance to sit outside with my morning cup of coffee, look around and take a deep breath, it’s all worth it.