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Gardening Is Therapy

Posted By Mark Sisson On April 19, 2011 @ 8:52 am In Personal Improvement | 82 Comments

It’s been a great weekend here of sun, fun, and PrimalCon of course. In returning to reality yesterday, I was checking the news and seeing some of you out there are bracing for yet another round of winter’s jest. My condolences – seriously. I’ll admit I was happy to forgo the six month long Maine winters for California years ago. Nonetheless, there are still aspects of Northern life I miss and admire. I remember, for example, the almost manic excitement with which people awaited spring. Their fervor for planning the year’s garden seemed wholly inverse to the short and still relatively cool growing season. I don’t know how many of you are gardeners, but I’m all for using the term loosely. Whatever gets us down in the dirt, digging in the midst of all those fine microbes [7], is work worth doing (without the toxic chemicals [8] of course). An older neighbor of mine (with the greenest thumb I’ve ever seen) always tells me gardening is “good for the soul.” Although I don’t have an ounce of the talent she does, I’d have to agree. It only gets better though. Research demonstrates it’s also good for the mind and body – in ways we might not expect.

Little surprise, I’d say, that researchers in Taiwan found one of the biggest motivations participants cited [9] for gardening was the “escape.” I would venture to guess this is a universal motivation. Life begins in the garden, so they say. The rest – worry, conflict, stress – simply dissolves in the landscape.

In another Netherlands based study, stressed participants were divided into two groups – one which read indoors and one which gardened in their allotment plots. Although both groups demonstrated [10] a drop in cortisol [11] (gardening participants showing a much steeper drop) during their respective activities, the gardening group fared much better in terms of mood, reporting a complete turn around by the end of the experiment.

Want more? In a Texas A&M survey [12], gardeners reported more physical activity, claimed more energy, and rated their overall health higher than non-gardeners. Those who described themselves as gardeners showed a higher level of life satisfaction than those who said they didn’t garden.

Researchers have particularly honed in on the health impact of gardening for older adults. Numerous studies demonstrate both physical and mental health benefits for older adults [13], including higher vegetable intake, better hand strength [14], and higher self-esteem.

Then there’s the dirt [15] itself – oh, the lovely, rich, misunderstood soil. Gardeners and dirt enthusiasts, you know what I’m talking about. The sensory pleasure of soft, cool crumbling between ungloved fingers, the physical, primordial delight of digging and absorbing oneself in the earth. Even if your horticultural results are nothing to write home about (I count myself in this camp), there’s gratification to be found in the endeavor. In the midst of that dark, nitrogen-esque smell, you’re kicking up some potent Mycobacterium vaccae bacteria [16], known to stimulate serotonin releasing neurons in the brain [17]. Dirt: the natural anti-depressant – literally. We could all use a little more dirt in our lives, I think.

As true gardening enthusiasts will tell you, gardening is so much more than just maintaining the yard (as so many of us grudgingly perform). It’s the sun on your shoulders [18], the nurturing of seedlings [19], the thoughtful honing (and pruning) of a creative vision [20], the witness of a living, growing force. It’s a labor of love and – for many – a show of true artistry. Gardening is a deeply sensory experience, and I think it touches something innate in the human spirit – the need for nature [21], to be sure, but something else as well. We evolved knowing the land, identifying with our home terrain (even within the context of roaming short distances for better hunting and gathering potential). We developed an intimate connection not with nature as a concept but with the specific land that nurtured and challenged us. Knowledge of our terrain was power – for foraging and survival. When we devote ourselves to gardening, I think we recreate that close association, that intimate understanding of the land, that raw, unsentimental mixing of earth and effort. It’s an endeavor so different from our everyday lives in this age. An escape, indeed.

Gardeners, gardener wannabees, aimless but well-intentioned putterers of the backyard, what say you? Are you chomping at the bit or already elbow deep in the soil? What do you enjoy the most? How do you see your gardening/farming ventures in the context of your Primal life? Thanks for reading today.


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[8] toxic chemicals: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/8-ways-to-reduce-your-chemical-load/

[9] cited: http://hortsci.ashspublications.org/cgi/content/abstract/45/7/1120

[10] demonstrated: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20522508

[11] cortisol: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/cortisol/

[12] survey: http://horttech.ashspublications.org/cgi/content/abstract/20/4/705

[13] physical and mental health benefits for older adults: http://horttech.ashspublications.org/cgi/content/abstract/20/4/711

[14] hand strength: http://hortsci.ashspublications.org/cgi/content/abstract/44/1/206

[15] dirt: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/primal-vaccine/

[16] Mycobacterium vaccae bacteria: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6T0F-4NC5T69-D&_user=10&_coverDate=05%2F11%2F2007&_alid=1723109680&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=search&_origin=search&_zone=rslt_list_item&_cdi=4861&_st=13&_docanchor=&_ct=1&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=49609bb1751f0f883ca68b9f69967b1f&searchtype=a

[17] stimulate serotonin releasing neurons in the brain: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/66838.php

[18] sun on your shoulders: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/vitamin-d-sun-exposure-supplementation-and-doses/

[19] nurturing of seedlings: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/category/seedlings/?submit=view

[20] creative vision: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/the-healing-imagination/

[21] need for nature: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/biophilia-nature-deficiency-children-mental-health/

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