Happy bacteria in the garden

They’re in the soil and they can transform our mood.

Have you even noticed that gardeners, as a group, seem to be pretty happy people? Not only that, but they also seem to keep their cognitive abilities intact into very old age. There may be two very good reasons for these observations: the first has to do with happy bacteria in the soil and the second with the kind exercise we do.

Happy bacteria
We’ve all heard the saying, “You have to eat a peck of dirt before you die”, and it seems to be truer than we might have imagined. Researchers have discovered that a particular bacterium found in soil, Mycobacterium vaccae, has the ability to trigger the release of seratonin. Seratonin is the neurotransmitter believed to be responsible for happiness and well being.

Gardeners, when they are digging in the soil, breathe in this happy bacteria or may absorb it through small abrasions on their skin. And a little goes a long way. Researchers who injected mice with the bacteria at the University of Bristol noticed that the positive effects lasted for up the three weeks.

Mary Obrien, an oncologist at Royal Marsden Hospital, London, England, was the first to make the connection. She was inoculating lung cancer patients with M. vaccae to see if it had any effect. What resulted was a reduction in the cancer symptoms plus better emotional health, vitality and even better cognitive functioning.

When Dr. Chris Lowry at Bristol University saw this, it triggered his hypotheses, based on his understanding that the body’s immune response to bacteria can cause the brain to produce serotonin. He conducted a series of experiments on mice and showed that indeed M. vaccae lowered stress, increased their activity and vitality and helped their concentration.

Stress is a villain
It appears that stress can also affect gut bacteria and the immune system by activating an enzyme that steals tryptophan, one of the building blocks of serotonin and melatonin. Stress can cause the tryptophan to be converted to a chemical that excites glutamate, which triggers depression, anxiety and memory loss. Do I have to add that gardening relieves stress?

Stress also increased levels of “bad” bacteria such as Clostridium difficile which causes disease, especially after antibiotic use. On the plus side, ‘good bacteria’ such as those found in live yoghurt help strengthen the immune system and can destroy hostile microorganisms. Lactobacillis acidophilus and Bifido bacterium found in probiotics may be able to combat the effects of C. difficile. There are also studies being conducted as to how diet can impact on depression, OCD, and anxiety.

This doesn’t mean you should start eating mud pies, but do get out into the garden and breathe deeply!

Resistance training staves off dementia
It has long been noted that being physically active can help stave off dementia and the credit has been given to the increase of blood flow through the brain. But now researchers are saying that exercise, especially strength building exercise, may be even more beneficial than at first thought.

The study by researchers at the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility at Vancouver Coastal Health and the University of British Columbia involved 86 senior women with mild cognitive impairment over a period of six months. Both aerobic and resistance training were looked at, but only resistance training showed significant improvements to a whole list of cognitive abilities.

The type of training recommended is very similar to what gardeners do as a matter of course: lifting, squatting, doing lunges are all recommended. This is being attributed to “growth factors” which improve the brain.

It’s not a bad idea to follow a resistance training exercise all year round, even for gardeners just to keep in shape for the joys of spring and summer. You can watch this video showing the simple exercises you can do at home or at the gym.

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