woman in the woods
It's a commonly known fact that the act of gardening can reduce stress and improve moods, but recent scientific studies have now shown that a particular microorganism that is found in soil can improve wellbeing and even act as an antidepressant. Mycobacterium vaccae is commonly found in soil, and has been proven to activate the release of brain serotonin, according to reports. The chemical serotonin together with dopamine boost immune systems and keep people happy. Both of these chemicals are neurotransmitters, which act as chemical messengers in the brain. dopamine affects emotions, movements and sensations of pleasure and pain, whilst serotonin regulates mood, social behaviour, libido, sleep, memory, and learning. When a person is gardening, M. vaccae is present on the skin when bare hands are in the soil. This is then either inhaled or enters into the bloodstream through any cuts.

The positive effects of the soil bacteria were discovered by accident by oncologist Dr Mary O'Brien, after she created a serum from the bacteria and gave it to lung cancer patients in an attempt to boost their immune system. Following this, she noticed the additional effects that the bacteria was having on the patients, which included enhanced happiness as well as them suffering less pain. Building on this concept, researchers Dorothy Matthews and Susan Jenks administered M. vaccae to mice before performing behavioural tests. Jenks said, "What our research suggests is that eating, touching and breathing a soil organism may be tied to the development of our immune system and nervous system." Their tests also showed that the mice were less anxious. Matthews stated, "It is interesting to speculate that creating learning environments in schools that include time in the outdoors where M. vaccae is present may decrease anxiety and improve the ability to learn new tasks."

feet in soil
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Studies claim that the overall wellbeing of a person's immune system and psychology is enhanced by frequent exposure to a diverse group of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and worms during the period of early childhood. The gastro-intestinal ract develops a hundred trillion microbes over a period of time, which is determined by a combination of genetics and the particular bacteria that live in and on living things around an individual. Therefore, scientists have stated that a diverse range of organisms, found in animals, plants, soil, water and air, are all required for the optimal functioning of the immune and nervous systems.

By simply spending time in nature, whether that be looking at plants and trees or physically gardening, the mental, social and physical wellbeing is impacted. Researchers, including Roger S. Ulrich, PhD, have found that viewing nature can help the body to heal. Ulrich found that patients whose rooms overlooked trees recovered better than those who had the view of a brick wall. They also got out of hospital faster, required less pain medication and had fewer complications. Being in nature, and particularly gardening, can be quite a creative activity, and permaculturist Robyn Francis has discovered that the act releases dopamine in the brain when products are harvested from the garden. She claimed, "Researchers hypothesise that this response evolved over nearly 200,000 years of hunter gathering, that when food was found (gathered or hunted) a flush of dopamine released in the reward centre of the brain triggered a state of bliss or mild euphoria. The dopamine release can be triggered by sight (seeing a fruit or berry) and smell as well as by the action of actually plucking the fruit."
plant in hand
Dr Daphne Miller has also written extensively on soil health and the health of the people who eat from that soil, and explained, "Perhaps the best place for us each to begin is with our own backyard plot or window box. Planting a rainbow of seeds, avoiding garden chemicals, nourishing the soil with plant matter, digging with our hands and eating the bounty - while not guaranteed to replace a pharmaceutical grade antidepressant - is a wonderful chance to hang out with 'Old Friends'."