“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more”
– John Burroughs (1837-1921), American naturalist and writer
In Permaculture, we are usually concerned with healthy and harmonious ecological systems, but it’s equally important for us to be healthy and balanced through a harmonious connection to Nature. In this article we’ll explore the health benefits of working with Nature in our gardens.
Gardening is a very healthy hobby, on so many levels. It’s not just about filling our tummy either, there’s a lot more to be had from a well designed garden than a tasty meal! Studies show that gardening promotes physical health, mental health through relaxation and satisfaction, and better nutrition. Gardening can indeed feed the body, mind and spirit!
Gardening for the Body
The primary reason why people decided thousands of years ago to grow plants was to sustain their bodies. This is still a very valid reason today, but there are many other reasons why gardening is beneficial to our physical health. Some of these are:
- Stress relief
- Brain health
A study in the Netherlands indicated that gardening is better at relieving stress than other relaxing leisure activities. Two groups of people were required to complete a stressful task, one group did some gardening for 30 minutes while the other group did some reading indoors over the same time. The gardening group reported being in a better mood than the reading group, and they also had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol .
The activity of gardening is also good for our bodies it’s healthy regular physical exercise which helps prevent of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, adult-onset diabetes and osteoporosis. Researchers at Kansas State University already have shown that gardening can offer enough moderate physical activity to keep older adults in shape . This was confirmed by another study where the researchers concluded that gardening is a great way for older adults to meet the physical activity recommendations set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Sports Medicine  .
A study that followed people in their 60s and 70s for up to 16 years found that those who gardened regularly had a 36% lower risk of dementia than non-gardeners, even when a range of other health factors were taken into account .
Studies have shown that gardeners eat more fruits and vegetables than other people. The freshest food you can eat is the food you grow, and when you have access to a garden filled with fruits and vegetables, you’re able to eat some of the healthiest food you can get! A European study investigating the links between diet and disease has found that people who consume more fruit and vegetables have a lower risk of dying from ischaemic heart disease .
Interacting with nature also helps our bodies heal. A landmark study by Roger S. Ulrich, published in the April 27, 1984, issue of Science magazine, found strong evidence that nature helps heal. Ulrich, a pioneer in the field of therapeutic environments at Texas A&M University, found that patients recovering from gallbladder surgery who looked out at a view of trees had significantly shorter hospital stays, fewer complaints, and took less pain medication, than those who looked out at a brick wall .
In 2007, University of Colorado neuroscientist Christopher Lowry, then working at Bristol University in England, made a startling discovery. He found that certain strains of harmless soil-borne Mycobacterium vaccae sharply stimulated the human immune system. It’s quite likely that exposure to soil bacteria plays an important role in developing a strong immune system .
Gardening for the Mind
- Better mental health
The same Mycobacterium vaccae, a harmless bacteria normally found in dirt that has been found to stimulate the immune system of mice and has also been found to boost the production of serotonin, a mood-regulating brain chemical. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression. Contact with soil in the garden may actually elevate our mood .
The antidepressant properties of M.vaccae were discovered accidentally while being used for experimental human lung cancer treatment by cancer researcher Mary O’Brien at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, England. After the patients were treated with heat-killed inoculations of the bacteria, O’Brien’s team observed not only fewer symptoms of cancer, but also improvements in their patients’ vitality, emotional health and mental abilities.
Researchers often find in their studies that subjects who participate in gardening have a positive mental outlook   . Studies reported in the Journal of Health Psychology in 2012 also show that people who feel a connection to Nature are indeed happier .
Gardening has been shown to help prevent dementia in seniors . Gardening requires you to use think, learn and use your creativity. By keeping the mind active, it serves as a protective measure against such degenerative diseases.
We must also remember that we humans are social creatures, and we maintain psychological and emotional health by interacting with one another in some form of community. Gardening connects you with people and community gardens provide an ideal opportunity for people to interact with each other. Research indicates that local gardening brings about a better sense of community   .
Gardening for the Spirit
A garden can also serve our higher needs, it can provide a harmonious space to relax, unwind, reflect and restore ourselves. It can serve as a place where we can appreciate the beauty, form and colours of Nature.
Gardening reconnects us to the cycles of Nature, these cycles are the rhythm of life itself. When we spend time in the garden, we learn to slow down, and when we get absorbed in our activities, we lose sense of all time and space, we forget out daily worries and concern, and we lose ourselves in ‘the zone’, a blissful Zen state where we are totally immersed in our activities and that timeless moment.
According to Clare Cooper Marcus, MA, MCP, professor emerita from the University of California at Berkeley, and one of the founders of the field of environmental psychology, one of the reasons why Nature may be so successful at reducing stress is that it puts the mind in a state similar to meditation. When you engage Nature, you naturally stop thinking, obsessing and worrying. Your senses are awakened, which brings you into the present moment, and this has been shown to be very effective at reducing stress, says Marcus, drawing on her own observations .
Harvard naturalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Edward O. Wilson, who coined the term biophilia (love of living things) believes that Nature holds the key to health. He believes that we have an affinity for nature because we are part of nature and would prefer to look at flowers and grass rather than concrete or steel. As part of the natural world, we are connected to and restored by it.
Studies presented at the 1999 Culture, Health, and the Arts World Symposium in England also found beneficial effects of just even looking at nature. In one study, conducted in Uppsala, Sweden, 160 postoperative heart patients were asked to look at a landscape, an abstract art work, or no picture. Those who looked at the landscape had lower anxiety, required less pain medicine, and spent a day less in the hospital than the control group patients .
To reap these restorative benefits of Nature, all we need to do is plant a few flowers or herbs and enjoy Nature’s gift to us!
By creating a space where we can reconnect with Nature, we can provide ourselves the means to heal our mind, body and spirit, and a means heal the planet also. When we grow gardens, we grow life, which we care for, nurture and partake in.
To quote the Permaculturist Geoff Lawton – “All the world’s problems can be solved in a garden”
(This article is one which I wrote for Sustainable Gardening Australia in 2015, and is being republished here in 2017)
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