Science has proven that gardening can improve libido and all-round wellbeing, writes Fiann Ó Nualláin
Going for a nature walk, taking up an outdoor sport or creating a garden are now on the suggestion lists of GPs and councillors when confronted with a depressed patient. Sometimes even before the prescription pad is reached for. Such is the validated research on how gardening and nature participation lifts mood and decreases many mental health issues.
One can surmise that much of the horticultural therapy success stories may indeed be a broad picture of building resilience and self-esteem via gardening activities combined with the personal sense of rejuvenation via exposure to fresh air and sunshine and of course that daytime accumulation of vitamin d which supports happier brain chemistry in a manner similar to certain prescribed meds. But it may be even simpler. It may be simple as just getting your hands dirty.
Back in the early 2000s, Irish Trinity graduate Dr Mary O’Brien a consultant oncologist at Royal Marsden Hospital in London was exploring a new lung cancer treatment that included a combination of traditional chemo and experimental inoculation with a treated strain of soil bacterial Mycobacterium vaccae (already hypothesised as a potential antibiotic, immunotherapeutic and potential beneficial respiratory agent).
Her findings were quite spectacular not just for oncology advancement and cancer survival but in the area of mental wellbeing. She noticed that not only was there a reduction in cancer symptoms but those on the trial expressed and demonstrated improvement in their emotional wellbeing, self- perception of vitality, and also improved clarity or cognitive function
O’Brien’s discovery piqued the interest of Dr Chris Lowry from Bristol University, who surmised a potential serotonergic link between the bacteria exposure and the resulting elevated moods and wellness perception. He hypothesised that the body’s immune response to the introduced bacterium had increased production of serotonin (aka the happy hormone) as a defence.
Several experiments, with stressed and depressed mice benefiting from ingestion or inoculation of vaccae, led to an understanding of how the bacteria triggered elevated cytokines levels which spurred serotonin release. Serotonin also plays a role in learning and recall — hence Dr O’Brien’s patients reporting increased clarity or improved cognitive capacity.
Here’s the thing — we gardeners have regular contact with this soil microbe — we may inhale or ingest a little from particles blown up into our breathable air, we can make topical contact and absorption through our green fingers and soil-working hands and we can get it directly into the bloodstream via any nick or cut on our skin’s surface.
And yes we should be wearing gloves to avoid the cat pee and soil dangers but it is amazing that contact with soil has a physical impact. That as we work the garden —this antidepressant particle works us — in the direction of clarity, confidence and greater sense of physical and mental wellbeing. What a secret gift — well not so secret anymore but an ongoing gift.
Experiments have shown that exposure to M. vaccae can last two to three weeks. And so if you are not a gardener or are showing this article to a friend who is down but doesn’t have a garden then a helping hand in your local community garden once a month could be the ideal top up of positivity, social interaction and mood-lifting chemistry.
Planting a plant may just be the new Prozac. Stepping outside of inner thoughts with some hands-on horticulture may be a powerful weapon against your depression and anxiety.
Now, this is the warning on the label bit — wellness perception can lead to an increase in libido and apparently gardeners buoyed up by natural rhythms and all this positive brain chemistry are on the more receptive, loving and amorous scale anyway. So a bit of getting down and dirty may have other benefits or consequence too. I’ll let you decide which.
Back to the serious side — seasonal affective disorder (SAD) aka the “winter blues” is believed to affect 1 in 15 Irish people — but that’s collated from those who seek clinical help. And we all know someone who just retreats at this time of year and many more who get winter fatigue or food cravings and irritated mood — even to the point of bah humbug — those are also seasonal affected complications as the body struggles with low serotonin.
It is understood that this type of depression is related to changes in natural sunlight levels and day length in autumn and winter seasons. Exposure to daylight and sunshine is involved in the synthesis of vitamin D which is a precursor of serotonin — the happy hormone. So it not just that overcast days and wintery nights are mood depressors by ambiance but by virtue of a decrease in chemical activity in the brain as the D becomes more deficient. The hort therapy or the soil contact opportunities can be less this time of year but get what you can, maybe look at a natural daylight light box and then there are some nutritional tricks.
My own bouts used to begin around mid-September with a slight decrease in energy levels that mounted over October into a leaden tiredness, then after Halloween, I would begin to not just feel unrefreshed after sleep but quite gloomy and dull in my thinking and less enthusiastic about whatever it was I had to do in the day.
Come the ending of November I would crave sweet things and ignore my own advice — which began a vicious cycle of being hungry or sleepy and annoyed at or ashamed of both states.
I know now that that is part of it, as the body looks for fatty and sugary foods (containing tryptophan) to make energy and serotonin by a different route. By Christmas week, even Ebenezer Scrooge had more joy and outlook than myself and the dread of family and friends was many times overwhelming — then after a period of self- quarantine (hiding from life), the slow crawl out may have lasted until March or April.
That was my life from teens to mid-30s. Then I discovered the food link. Now I just take a Vitamin D supplement from September to the new year’s day and add some foods to my winter meals that I previously didn’t. So while I still take a slight dip in jump up and down enthusiasm over winter, I am not defeated by sadness or numbness. I survive it, work through it, get a lot more life in and don’t need the meds or generate the frets of family and friends if they haven’t heard from me in a while.
There are many D-rich foods that can be easily incorporated into your meal plans; oily fish — such as salmon, mackerel, trout, fresh tuna, sardines, herring. Red meat and organ meat such as liver. Also egg yolks. If vegetarian, then mushrooms (exposed to UV) are great — portabella, chanterelles, shiitake, crimini. Also fortified foods — many yogurts, milks and breakfast cereals have extra vitamin D. Come spring the sun will resupply all you need.
All this said — if you are down — do let people know; family or friend, do see your GP or call a helpline. Be on somebody’s radar. I know sometimes the last thing you want is a friendly caller or platitude encouragement but sometimes all you need is to know that there is a lifeguard on the beach if the next wave is just too strong.
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