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Gardening: an antidote to depression?

How fair is a garden amid the trials and passions of existence.

Benjamin Disraeli

If you are a keen gardener, you don't need me to tell you that gardening can lift your spirits. And there is research to back us up; the UK magazine Gardeners World polled 1,500 adults and found that 80 per cent of gardeners feel satisfied with their lives compared with 67 per cent of non-gardeners. Interestingly, there is growing evidence that gardening may have a positive effect in reducing depression. Of course depression is a complex condition and there is never going to be one magic cure that works for everyone, but with the rates of depression increasing it is worth considering any approaches that can offer some relief.  

In her book Lifting Depression, neuroscientist Kelly Lambert explores the 'effort-driven rewards brain circuit', made up of the nucleus accumbens (a key reward centre, releasing dopamine), the striatum (part of the brain's movement system) and the pre-frontal cortex (a primary site for problem-solving, planning and decision-making). Her research indicated that depression reduces activity in this circuit, resulting in a loss of motivation and pleasure, slowed movement and fatigue, and reduced cognitive abilities. Conversely, she found that the effort-driven rewards circuit could be stimulated by engaging in activities that involve hands-on effort, that allow a sense of control and competence, and produce a tangible result or sense of achievement. In effect, these activities can serve as an antidote to the depression response. That's a big tick for gardening! 

Depression often occurs as a result of stress; as psychiatrist Tim Cantopher suggests in his book Depressive Illness: The Curse of the Strong, prolonged stress can see the body eventually 'blow a fuse'. Both stress and depression can be exacerbated by feelings of being rushed, overwhelmed or out of control of aspects of our life. By engaging in activities that allow us to slow down and create a sense of competence and control, the stress systems in our brain can become more settled (oh look, that'll be gardening again!) Once the stress systems become less active, even for a short period of time, we are better able to tap into our cognitive skills of planning and problem-solving to deal with life more effectively. 

Sensory input can have a powerful, immediate effect on the deepest levels of our brain that house our survival and emotional centres. When our survival brain is being flooded with pleasant sensations from the outside world (sights, smells, textures, tastes, sounds) and from our bodies (by controlled, measured movements) it can, in that moment, feel more safe and settled.  Gardening, particularly food gardening, is one of the few activities that can stimulate all of these external and internal senses, explaining the deep feelings of contentment and serenity that many people experience when gardening. Many people experience depression not so much as a sadness, but as a numbness - as a sense of being disengaged from the world around them. Sensory-rich activities such as gardening can provide a safe and simple avenue for re-engagement and connection.

An increasing body of research is suggesting that mindfulness practice can be a useful tool in managing depression. Mindfulness can be described as 'present-moment awareness', which is enhanced by activities that fully engage the mind, the body and all the senses. Again, gardening comes up a winner. 

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced, I believe, cheek-sent-me-high) has famously explored the concept of 'flow', the mental state in which one becomes completely absorbed in the task at hand, to the extent that time flies and everything else is forgotten. I'm sure I'm not the only gardener who stops to pull a few weeds on the way to the letterbox, only to find myself still there an hour or two later wondering where the time went. Significantly, regularly achieving state of flow has been found to be one the most important factors in leading a satisfying life. 

Most of these findings seem quite intuitive - a case of science merely proving what gardeners have known for years. But there is one research finding that took me by surprise. study published in 2007 found that a common soil bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae, when injected into mice, activated serotonin-releasing neurons in the brain - in fact, the same neurons targeted by Prozac. The study suggested that the bacteria may also activate immune cells which can reduce inflammation; this is significant because an increasing amount of research is suggesting a link between depression and the body's inflammatory response.

Soil bacteria acting like Prozac: who saw that coming? Maybe the old wisdom is right; "gardening is cheaper than therapy...and you get tomatoes!"

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