The happy hormones we get from dirt

When I come upon a tree or a vine with actual fruit on it in the city I get excited. Naturally, I just want to eat the delicious, fresh, found fruit and enjoy the rare delight of being able to pick it myself.

Despite the slightly confusing aspect of knowing whether it’s ok to take fruit hanging from a tree that’s half on the footpath and half in someone’s back yard, it’s an enjoyable activity that peps up any walk.

On this, I’ve often wondered whether the rising diagnoses of mental health disorders is correlated with a rising urban population; hence more people living in cities, disconnected from gardens, forests and wilderness. It seems like a logical conclusion, but where’s the evidence?

Apparently it’s in. Interesting recent research suggests that we could all benefit from being dirtier, touching the earth more often and fossicking for food. Further our neurotic health and safety focused society may be more detrimental to wellbeing than immediately apparent.

Findings made by UK scientists and published in the early online version of Neuroscience suggest that contact with the soil, specifically a soil-based bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae – can trigger the release of serotonin, the brain’s happy hormone, a natural anti-depressant and immune strengthener.

Source: Dale Echnoz: Flickr
Source: Dale Echnoz: Flickr

This has implications for the importance of immune system imbalances and mental health issues like depression. Perhaps gardening and nature therapy would be a refreshing addition to treatments for anxiety and depression.

The evidence for benefits of gardening and nature time doesn’t stop there. It has also been found that harvesting products directly from plants releases dopamine in the brain’s reward centre, triggering feelings of mild bliss and euphoria.

Source: Liz West, Flickr
Source: Liz West, Flickr

The dopamine release can occur due to the sight, smell or the action of plucking the fruit or vegetable. Researchers hypothesise this response has evolved from nearly 200 000 years of hunter gathering behaviour and the rewards associated with finding sustenance.

The modern equivalent of this is of course compulsive consumption with addictions to shopping, overeating or smoking resulting from the dopamine-fuelled bliss of pleasure and reward.

All addiction pathways are the same, so it’s about changing the reward rather than suppressing the addiction. We may not be able to stop cravings but we can refocus our attention on what we crave and look for positive, sustainable ways of feeding our brain’s pleasure centre.

A cure perhaps for the pandemonium of Christmas commercialism and the post festive season blues is to get out and about in the forests and urban green spaces and see what we can fossick for, find or grow instead.

Let food be thy medicine and thy medicine by thy food.

Source: Mari Smith, Flickr
Source: Mari Smith, Flickr

 

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