By Dr. Justin Marchegiani
Rates of depression have been skyrocketing. Teen depression rates leaped by more than 60% over the course of only three years. As a society, our mental and physical health is seriously declining. While feeling unhappiness, dissatisfaction or loneliness every so often is completely normal; prolonged periods of these negative feelings takes a real toll on our lives.
Question: When was the last time you got dirty?
No, really, when did you last go outside and bury your feet in the ground or pick veggies straight from the garden?
We live sterile lives indoors. Hand sanitizer and antibacterial soap are never more than a few steps away, and we clean our homes with germ-killing sprays and sanitizers. But what would you say if I told you that research conducted in recent years has revealed that the bacteria and microbes in dirt can aid in enhancing your immune system and boosting your mood?! Let’s further explore the mental and physical benefits of getting dirty.
Dirt Throughout Time
Studies show that children who reside on farms have a significant reduction in allergies, asthma, and gut-associated ailments when compared to children who grow in more sterile environments. This is recognized as “the Farm-Effect,” which links low microorganism exposure to a high vulnerability for developing allergies by limiting the natural progress of our immune system.
If you think about it, it makes sense. For hundreds of thousands of years, we have coexisted with bacteria and microbes and lived lives outdoors. Babies crawl, which in paleolithic times, would have meant spending a lot of time in the dirt! (Plus, babies have a knack for sticking things in their mouth.) Throughout the course of time, until recent times that is, tiny humans had constant daily access to the dirt and all sorts of other microorganisms that boost the immune system and influence gut bacteria. We all require little dirt in our existing lives.
Dirt, Soil Microbes, and Depression
Soil microbes such as Mycobacterium vaccae have been studied for their serotonin-boosting and anti-depressant effects on the brain. Serotonin deficiency has been linked to mood issues including anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder.
In a study conducted on lung cancer patients, the patients were injected with Mycobacterium vaccae, afterward reporting less anxiety and an enhanced quality of life.
Ready to Get Dirty?
The microorganisms living in our natural environment have positive effects on our mood, immune system, and more! Below are some of the other top reasons to go outside and connect with nature:
- Reduced blood pressure
- Lowered anxiety
- Boosted cognitive function: Being outside engages your senses. Your brain gets a boost as it works to problem-solve and memorize your environment.
- Reduced rheumatoid arthritis symptoms
- Anti-inflammatory effects
- If you’re playing outside in the dirt, the sunlight is helping you manufacture Vitamin D, and regulates your circadian rhythm, which means better sleep!
- Children who spend more time playing outside are more courageous, energetic, and imaginative!
The growing body of research on the human microbiome continually points to the impact of microbes on our long-standing health. Despite being invisible to the naked eye, millions of microscopic bacteria and microbes exist on your skin and in your gut. These bacteria have vital roles in everything from controlling your mood, to the development of diseases like arthritis and diabetes.
Outdoors as a Cure for Depression
Science knows that microbes in the natural world play a vital role in our health. Several antibiotics (like penicillin) are manufactured from the microbes that originate in the dirt.
The majority of the healthy bacteria our bodies benefit from are found in soil. Children flourish when they are allowed to play outside, but us grownups can get some fun nature time too! Gardening is a hobby that keeps on giving. Reap all the benefits of spending time outside in the sun, fresh air, and dirt. Plus, if you grow organic berries yourself, you can eat them fresh from the garden (without washing) knowing they’re safe and more health-packed than anything you’d buy on the shelf at the grocery store.
As the paleo diet and lifestyle movement carries on, researchers are beginning to take a look at re-establishing the relationship between humans and the earth. Research is ongoing, and the antidepressant effects of getting outside back up what gardeners have been saying for years: gardening is better than therapy and good for the soul!