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Dig for the Health of it: Gardening can boost your physical and mental wellness

It’s no secret that gardening has boomed in the past couple of years. Locked at home, staring out at the backyard, millions of us turned to plants for solace.

Pandemic “victory gardens” began springing up early on – more than half of Canadians grew some of their own food in the first year of the pandemic, nearly 20 per cent of them doing so for the first time ever. Seed sales have been up every year, with some seed companies reporting that sales have tripled.

Some of these new gardeners were inspired by fears of food shortages, or a need to get some kind of low-impact exercise, or a desire for something to do as a family. But many of us were also driven by something more elemental: a deep-seated need to work in the dirt and to help something grow.

And even as pandemic fears fade, gardening passion is still going strong.

This is partly because people are discovering for themselves what scientists have known for some time: working in the soil has profound physical and mental health effects. Just spending time outside in natural surroundings can have an amazing impact on our moods, our intellectual abilities, and our physical health – something every cottager knows. Spending as little as 20 minutes outdoors in natural surroundings lowers your levels of cortisol, the so-called stress hormone.

Those effects are even more noticeable if you spend time in contact with the soil. Working in the dirt is good for your body.

Why? One explanation is the “old friends” hypothesis – the idea being that we evolved in tandem with beneficial microbes in the soil. When we aren’t exposed to those microbes, we begin to experience inflammation and other stress-related health impacts.

Studies have identified a specific fatty acid found in a soil-dwelling bacterium that can prevent stress responses in mice and rats – when they are exposed to the bacterium, their gut microbiome is strengthened, and they have much greater stress resilience. “This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil,” said Christopher Lowry, a professor at University of Colorado Boulder, who has been studying this. “But there are millions of other strains in soils… We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy.”

So, if you’re feeling the urge to get out and dig, don’t resist it. It may just be your body trying to tell you that it needs something that we’ve been denying ourselves for far too long.

ARTICLE BY ANDREW WAGNER-CHAZALON | PHOTO BY SCOTT TURNBULL

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