15th May 2023
Can gardening really reduce stress, reduce depression, improve self esteem and have a positive impact on our mood? Are there health benefits of gardening beyond the obvious physical exercise gained from digging and pottering amongst this natural environment?
It was Hippocrates, traditionally referred to as the “father of medicine”, who said: “Nature itself is the best physician.”
At Forest Garden, we think he was absolutely right, though nature isn’t just wonderful for our physical health, it’s great for our mental wellbeing too.
It’s Mental Health Awareness Week from 15th to 21st May, so let’s spend a little time considering why nature and gardening are just so good for us.
Getting your hands in the soil is known to keep depression at bay.
This has been proven by research. Making contact with the earth, and a specific bacteria in the soil called Mycobacterium vaccae, actually triggers the release of serotonin and dopamine in the body, in turn boosting our immunity and raising our spirits.
Serotonin, of course, is a feel-good chemical that fights depression.
And it’s been shown that dopamine is released when we harvest our own food. Researchers believe this chemical reaction in the body could go back 200,000 years to when our hunter-gatherer ancestors felt elated at finding food sources!
So sometimes, it seems, we need to take off our gardening gloves and have direct contact with the soil to boost our mood.
There’s nothing better than feeling the power of nature around us. The joy of watching seedlings grow is nothing short of miraculous.
But we’re quite like plants ourselves! We too need Vitamin D from sunlight to keep well – in fact, it’s essential for many bodily functions. Studies have shown that being outside in the sunlight and having enough Vitamin D in our bodies can reduce our risk of certain cancers, diabetes and even dementia. It also helps us sleep better.
We’re not advocating getting sunburnt, but the healing power of a little sunshine every day goes a long way for our bodies and minds.
A strong link exists between low mood and insomnia. If we can’t sleep well, then our brains just don’t function properly. But an afternoon’s gardening can be quite strenuous and can promote a good night’s sleep. Raking, digging, chopping and mowing are all superb forms of exercise that will tire out our muscles, relax our brains and help us to sleep at night. Why not give it a try!
Being in the garden is a wonderful way to stimulate our senses – all of them!
The beauty of flowers and trees fills our eyes; we’re often surrounded by buzzing bees and the sound of delightful birdsong; we can smell the beautiful fragrances of fruits, vegetables and flowers; we can touch the many different textures of the plants around us; and we can taste the delicious and natural foods we grow.
When our senses are stimulated in the relaxed setting of our gardens or allotments, our minds start to slow down and feel calm.
When we take note of nature around us, it’s an exercise in mindfulness, which is good for the soul.
Many studies have been carried out into the advantages of walking barefoot in the garden.
Make sure to avoid any sharp objects so we don’t injure ourselves! But walking barefoot has actually been linked to the development of the brain and nervous system, proving that it’s great for young children to run around and explore barefoot in the garden.
The thick skin on feet is designed to keep pathogens out, so we shouldn’t worry too much about germs. Research has also shown that walking barefoot can regulate stress responses and boost our immunity.
What a beautiful way to reduce stress. Letting the grass touch your skin doesn’t just feel good; it really is good for our physical and mental health.
Designing a seating area for quiet time in the garden is always a lovely idea.
Having a little retreat away from the busy world where our minds can switch off is so soothing.
We may want to read a book, paint a picture or simply just “be” for a while. We don’t take enough time out from our busy schedules to rest and become mindful, and to enjoy what’s around us.
Mindfulness is about being aware in the present moment, while calmly acknowledging our thoughts and feelings in an accepting way. It’s highly therapeutic. So, during the warmer months, having a pleasant spot in the garden where you can sit and be mindful is beneficial to our wellbeing.
According to ‘Healthline’, studies in the United States have shown that gardening offers improvements in both self-esteem and mood.
Many people have found that their anxiety levels drop, they feel less depressed and their state of mind improves when they’re gardening – and these effects can be long-lasting too. It seems we were meant to be outdoors and growing food and other plants. It takes us back to our roots (if you’ll pardon the pun!).
Gardens can also be superb places for social interaction. Whether you enjoy going to a school, allotment or community gardens, or you simply like to ask friends round to spend time in your own garden, socialising outdoors can be so refreshing.
Just spending time talking and laughing with our friends can lower our stress levels and soothe our minds. After all, we all know the old adage that ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ – and it really is true.
We need to make time to connect with other people and in green space too. And if you like to work in community gardens, you can also learn new gardening skills and tips while making friends.
Of course, growing your own organic fruit and veg will boost your physical and mental health.
We can’t separate our mental wellbeing from our physical wellbeing; these two things are completely intertwined.
So, eating healthily – including a good variety of different-coloured produce – will benefit us. Food grown at home can be chemical free and truly organic. And, naturally, there will be no air miles involved!
If you’re someone who worries about the environment and your carbon footprint (eco anxiety) growing your own food is definitely the way to go.
Whether you incorporate gardening into your regular physical activity routine or not, the positive benefits of getting active outdoors are endless. Mental Health charity Mind talks of how physical activity and movement helps maintain positive mental health. Mind reports that “Being physically active also gives your brain something to focus on and can be a positive coping strategy for difficult times”.
Your garden offers the perfect easy access green space for working physical exercise into everyday life. Let’s name it green exercise and make it part of our week.
Finally, to make sure gardening is a truly positive experience that builds up your stamina, reduces your anxiety and boosts your mood, ensure you think about the following points:
a. Avoid chemicals in your garden, if at all possible – pesticides, fertilizers and weed killers can all be dangerous.
b. Drink plenty of water to keep hydrated.
c. Take regular breaks, especially if you’re crouched weeding in the same position or doing some heavy digging for long periods of time.
d. Use sun cream if you’re out in the sun.
e. You may need to consider using some insect repellant, depending on the conditions.
f. Consider having a tetanus injection once every ten years as tetanus lives in soil.
g. If you’re strimming or pruning, for example, remember to wear gloves and safety goggles.
Wishing you happy gardening, and a happy mood! Take care.