Gardening for Good Mental Health

close up of garden trowel turning over soil - gardening for good mental health

It’s a busy season for gardening. In the Northern hemisphere, we’re putting our gardens to bed, while our friends in the South are waking theirs up. And while we’re doing plenty of labour to make our gardens their best, our gardens are also doing some hard work to maintain and improve our mental health.

It won’t be news to gardeners that there’s something therapeutic about the activity. Many gardeners, however, might be interested to know that there’s scientific evidence to prove that their feelings are correct. There’s a large and growing body of research to support the idea that gardening has value both as a therapy and as a preventative health measure.

A 2018 article by Richard Thompson, past president of the Royal College of Physicians, presents an overview of some of this research. He finds that green care, “or therapy by exposure to plants and gardening,” has measurable positive effects on mood, general mental health, pain, blood pressure, depression, anxiety, stress and even recovery time after surgery.

But how does gardening do this? Let’s get into how and why gardening is so good for mental health.

Keeping Us Active

The links between physical activity and strong mental health are well-known at this point. The Mental Health Foundation explains that a more active lifestyle has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety and depression, as well as improve mood, cognitive function and self-esteem. 

Gardening offers a surprisingly effective workout. According to Linda Hinkle at LiveStrong, a 155-pound person burns 344 calories/hr weeding, 298 calories/hr raking leaves, 298 calories/hr planting and 372 calories/hr digging. Those numbers, she cautions, are dependent on a person’s weight and on “the level of effort” they put into the task.

In addition to burning calories, the exercise associated with gardening increases muscle strength and balance. It can improve sleep, reduce fatigue, help you maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of many diseases associated with inactivity, all of which promotes strong mental health, as well.

Changing our Brain Chemistry

In addition to being good physical activity, gardening has been proven to be an effective intervention into a range of specific mental health issues including depression, anxiety, mood disturbances and schizophrenia. It’s theorized that much of this positive impact has to do with the emotional connections we make with the plants we grow and the spaces we grow them in.

There are also more scientific explanations. Research shows that Mycobacterium vaccae, a bacterium found in soil, boosts serotonin in the brain. Neuroscientist Christopher Lowry tells Discover Magazine that these bacteria have “the exact same effect as antidepressant drugs” because like antidepressants, they activate neurons that produce serotonin.

In addition to raising our brains’ serotonin levels, gardening also lowers cortisol, a hormone that’s associated with stress and that increases the risk of mental health issues. A 2011 study found that 30 minutes of gardening reduced cortisol levels significantly, even more than 30 minutes of reading did.

Teaching Us to Let Go

flowers in sunlight - gardening for good mental health

Seth Gillihan explains that many of the mental benefits of gardening have to do with the nature of Nature. The natural world is fickle and unpredictable — reliably so — and the fact that we can depend on it to be out of our control can help us to let go of perfectionism and defeatism. “We bring our best efforts to what we can control,” Gillihan says, “and we let go of the rest.” That acceptance, he argues, makes us less stressed and more capable of embracing our own mistakes. 

Improving Cognitive Function

Gardening not only boosts our moods; it also boosts our cognitive performance. A 2019 study found that levels of brain nerve growth factors BDNF and PDGF “significantly increased” in study participants after 20 minutes of “low-to-moderate intensity gardening activity.” (In case you’re like most people and those letter combinations don’t mean much to you, these factors promote the development of neurons, as well as strengthen memory.)

The study authors cite earlier research that found that gardening also helped improve cognitive function in seniors with dementia, and they conclude that the “potential of a short-term gardening activity for memory improvement” in seniors is significant. If we want brains that function well, well into later life, gardening might be one key to keeping them strong.

Correcting the “Nature Deficit”

Study after study have shown that depriving people of access to the natural world results in increased mental and physical health issues, while restoring that access makes an immediate improvement. Richard Louv has introduced the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe this phenomenon. The term, as he says in his interview with Jill Suttie, is a metaphor that illustrates “the human costs of alienation from nature: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses,” the list goes on.

Given that, as Thompson says, studies have found that simply looking at plants creates positive physiological reactions in our bodies, spending time in the garden becomes a simple way to overcome our current alienation from living things. With the growing successes of green care initiatives like horticultural therapy and wilderness therapy, there’s more and more evidence that getting in touch with nature through gardening can stave off and treat many of the adverse health effects created by our urban lifestyles.

Giving Us Healthy Foods

Finally, those of us who grow and harvest their own food are more likely to eat a diet of healthy vegetables and fruits, which both studies and common sense tell us improves our mood and gives us the nutrients our brains need to function at their best. And that’s in addition to all the good vitamin D we get from working outside in our gardens.

If you’re struggling with mental health issues, remember that you’re not alone. Reach out and find help, either online, through your doctor or through your local community resources. And then get out into the garden!

Feature image: Lisa Fotios; Image 1: Irina Iriser

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