When was the last time you got your hands the soil-kind-of-dirty? For gardeners, farmers, and all around dirt enthusiasts, this answer could be as recent as today. For most of us it turns out, the answer is very much too far in the past. Emerging research reveals that when properly stirred, soil microbes release game-changing chemicals. If contacted by creatures both animal and human alike, these freed compounds trigger a rush of serotonin. Amongst other benefits, serotonin is known to boost mood. Surprisingly, mixing dirt seems to possess much heart-lifting potential. The healing power of soil deserves at least a second or even third glance.
Dirt’s Nitty Gritty
Soil is a fascinating and often forgotten substance. It is the unquestionable font of nourishment for most of our planet’s wild things. To those of us with an established soil-to-human bond, it brings a greater sense of community, purpose, and joy. Perhaps this is due to our historical roots or our tendency to push ourselves into the outdoors when others may not. On the other hand, this dirt propensity may be due to the work of microscopic fauna given very little notice even by those in the fields of science, agriculture, and medicine. Mycobacterium vaccae is a microorganism found in healthy soil which stimulates serotonin production in all creatures studied to date, including humans.
As we’ve transitioned from rural to urban living, humans have begun experiencing what some term a dirt deficiency. Increasing scientific support shows that this disconnect may be partially responsible for the steady rise in childhood inattentiveness, asthma, and weakened immune systems. Researchers have shown causal effects between M. vaccae and improved concentration in mice. Even more compelling is the research demonstrating heightened tuberculosis resistance in Ugandan populations exposed to M. vaccae. These findings led to related studies indicating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) reduction in mice and the lifting of depressive symptoms in cancer patients. Physical and mental health are inexorably linked, and so all things being said, a healthy dose of dirt seems just what the doctor ordered. The healing power of soil just took on a whole new meaning!
Human’s Dirty History
Roots of our human to farm bond run deep and long. The practice of agriculture surfaced some 12,000 years ago and has profoundly influenced our means of connecting not only to land but also to each other. Groups of people were finally able to shed their nomadic existence and settle down for a bit. Villages, towns, and cities were established as grain, produce, and herbs were seeded. This soil/human relationship is one of great history and power. Those that farmed well, lived well. This exploration of soil’s chemical mechanisms offers yet further evidence that humans’ fierce agricultural spirit is a bit more intriguingly deep-rooted than expected.
The relationship between serotonin and depression has been studied for over five decades. Previous understanding of this process pointed to an overly simplified connection. The lower a person’s serotonin, the higher the depressive symptoms. However, as with all things systems related, the story is much more complex.
Serotonin is a naturally occurring substance and one of the body’s neurotransmitters. Known broadly as the brain and nervous system’s chemical messengers, these chemicals facilitate the transfer of information from one nerve cell to another. It has been shown that serotonin in particular plays an integral role in the regulation of appetite, metabolism, and sleep cycles. These are only a few of its important physiological tasks. Relative to emotions and specifically depressive states, serotonin has been linked to the improvement in a person’s ability to process feelings, which can lead to increased mood over the long haul. Though many of the body’s serotonin receptors can be found in the brain, the majority are tucked soundly into a person’s gut. Cutting edge research has uncovered a connection between inflammation of the digestive system and depressed mood.
This more well-rounded knowledge of serotonin’s processes has led to the creation and utilization of medications commonly known as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors or SSRIs. These pharmaceuticals known by many as Lexapro, Zoloft, Prozac, and Celexa to name a few jumpstart the production of serotonin and follow dirt’s lead by regulating mood and decreasing inflammation. Though the process continues to be investigated and clarified, there is no doubt that many of us struggling with emotional dysregulation benefit from these medications offering sometimes life-changing, mood-boosting qualities. The healing power of soil broadens our grasp of these elusive yet naturally occurring chemicals. Serotonin stimulating soil is a concept worth unearthing. If you do find yourself on distinctly shaky emotional ground, reach out for professional support, such as that offered by The Center For Growth. Catching downshifts or intense upswings early can lead to powerful results!
The Search For Soil
Let’s get dirty where you live! Though the hunt for microbally dense dirt may seem daunting, there are more opportunities available in our own regional backyards than many realize. The healing power of soil can be much less daunting and more accessible than first thought. Its mechanisms are soaked up simply via soil to skin contact or a deep breath as it’s churned. Some studies prove lasting effects for as long as three weeks.
Community Gardens - Searching for local community gardens is a great place to start if your preference is social soil moving. Often, these locations offer free memberships through work share partnerships.
Home Garden - If preferring more solitude in your soil to soul connection, home gardens can sufficiently dirty your life. Online guides are readily available to keep things exciting as well as simple and rewarding.
Local Farms - Seek out local organic or sustainably-focused farms. These are nearly always accepting volunteers to weed or harvest, often trading produce for working hands. Signing up for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) membership also allows many customers the ability to harvest their own flowers and dig their own veggies throughout the growing season.
A Tiny Fresh Start
As with all things new, it’s much less daunting to ease into your relationship with soil. Let’s not make getting dirty a tool of self criticism. Rather, let’s make it one of self-fulfillment. Use social media for good and scan Facebook Marketplace for old, inexpensive, colorful planters and pots. Keep an eye out for drain holes. You’ll need them! Step into thrift shops you may otherwise have left unvisited and snag some hand tools or gloves. Home improvement centers now offer soil and plant options nearly year round. Nurseries and farm shops teem with information, and their owners and employees tend to be overly enthusiastic about recruiting recently impassioned plant people. Best to set your sites on bagged dirt labeled garden soil in perforated or burlap packaging rather than potting mixes. These options are nearly certain to include those coveted mood-boosting microbes.
Choose a pot, some soil, a plant or two, and then establish a comfortable indoor home for your threesome. The designation of space for your dirty work is indeed a challenging but rewarding task. Your choice must include ample sunlight and protection from marauding house cats and adventuresome kids. In homes with limited space and the bustle of life, there inevitably exists one tiny spot of light which can house a pot with a plant tucked in soil.
Toss some imagination at that chosen windowsill or tabletop plant and remind yourself of those healing-power-of-soil benefits. When watering or trimming leaves, take a moment to put your fingertips in that dirt, no matter how shallow the pot. Now amplify that imagining and place yourself in fields of plowed earth. Our minds evolved to soak up happiness from mixing dirt. Until we can reach the fields, designing a reminder of this connection in a sunny corner makes nothing but good sense. It’s important to note that house plants can be tricky beasts even to the best of farmers! Never take a houseplant’s mortality too seriously. Dust yourself off, perhaps clean the slate with a new pot, and try try again.
A New Season For Growth
Soil contains a world of life beyond our full comprehension. It is fertile ground for the unearthing of captivating new discoveries such as the serotonin-inspiring, mood-lifting microbes brought to light in recent years. This natural source of serotonin offers beneficial bounties minus the sometimes distressing side effects of its pharmaceutical cousins. Let’s get dirty and turn up that soil! We’ve got nothing to lose and so very much more to gain.
For those of us with experiences such as lasting sadness and deepening isolation, it is important to reach out to those we trust. Center For Growth provides experienced and dedicated staff focused on providing support for those navigating life’s especially tenuous emotional ground. To find a therapist nearby, call The Center For Growth at (215) 922-5683 x 100.
Our work is being there for yours.
You can call therapists directly by finding their phone numbers on their profile, or you can bypass the wait time and schedule directly online. If you prefer talking to a therapist first, you may call (215) 922-LOVE (5683) ext 100 to be connected with our intake department. Lastly, you can call our Director, “Alex” Caroline Robboy, CAS, MSW, LCSW at (267) 324–9564 to discuss your particular situation. For your convenience, we have five physical therapy offices and can also provide counseling and therapy virtually.
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