In the Garden:
New England
July, 2008
Regional Report

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It's immensely satisfying to pluck these edible jewels from your own backyard trees.

Gardening is a Natural High

Last night as I was picking delicacies for a fruit salad -- blueberries and strawberries and cherries and blackberries, all within a few yards of my back door, I was thinking about why gardening makes me feel so happy. It's partly the food value, knowing that my garden is producing delicious and healthful food. It's partly the exercise value because gardening can strengthen muscles and burn calories, not to mention improve our moods. It's partly the fresh air and the communing with nature and taking time away from the busyness of life. Without a doubt there's a powerful effect at work -- witness the field of horticultural therapy, the school gardening movement, the community gardening network, and many other organizations and efforts that recognize and celebrate the ways gardening enhances our lives. Perhaps there's also something very fundamental occurring at a cellular level. Some scientists believe we may have soil bacteria to thank.

In a fascinating area of research, a soil bacterium called Mycobacterium vaccae has been found to ease the nausea and pain of lung cancer patients, reduce skin allergies, and even improve mood. In one study, immunologists at University College in London and the University of Bristol in England tried to find out how this bacterium might work. They experimented on mice, injecting them with the bacterium and looking at the mouse brains to see if there were any changes after the injections. They found elevated levels of serotonin in the brains, the chemical associated with feelings of well-being, the chemical targeted by the antidepressant drug Prozac. One of the researchers quips: "[The bacteria] had the exact same effect as antidepressant drugs."

The bacterium may affect mood in another way, too. A coauthor of the study said that depression may be, in part, an inflammatory disorder. Since M. vaccae also appears to trigger the production of immune cells that reduce inflammation typical of allergies, it might have value in treating inflammation related to depression.

I like the idea that playing in the garden might raise our spirits in part because we come in contact with soil organisms. It gives new meaning to the admonition to "start with the soil." The researchers suggest simply inhaling Mycobacterium vaccae might do the trick. They speculate that therapy with this bacterium might someday be used to treat depression. I think a prescription to start a new garden would provide the most benefit. Gotta get out in the garden, doctor's orders!


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