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 The Dirt Cure

Before the warmer weather fully winds down and we find ourselves spending less and less time outdoors, we thought it’d be interesting to see how this affects our systems. We asked environmental journalist, Amanda Little, who wrote our piece on local versus organic produce, to explain the benefits of reconnecting with the dirt.

The Dirt Cure

As a working mother, most weeks, I’m hard pressed to see the light of day, let alone spend time in a setting that could pass as “nature.” I ping-pong between my house, my car, my office, my kids’ schools, grocery stores, restaurants, and when I can get there, the gym. Like many of us, I’ve spent my adult life in too much of a harried rush to notice that my sunless, indoor, dirt-starved existence might actually be taking a toll.

There’s a growing body of research that explains why disconnecting from nature can actually jeopardize our happiness, weaken our immune systems, and undermine our powers of focus and creativity.

There’s a growing body of research that explains why disconnecting from nature can actually jeopardize our happiness, weaken our immune systems, and undermine our powers of focus and creativity. One in 10 Americans takes antidepressants: That alone is a remarkable statistic. But more surprising is the data among women in their 40’s and 50’s: one in four are medicated for depression. In England, a nation of 53 million people, tens of millions of prescriptions for antidepressants were written last year. A good percentage of these are needed and helpful, but not all.

It wasn’t until I met Jeanne Nolan, an urban farmer in Chicago, who cured her own depression by planting gardens, that I began to understand the cognitive and emotional benefits of being outside. In 1986, Jeanne was a high school student in a wealthy Chicago suburb and seemed to have everything going for her: She was at the top of her class and vice president of the student body. Yet, at 17, she’d fallen into a trench of deep depression. So she bagged high school two months into her senior year, and joined a commune in Southern California. She spent the next 17 years growing organic food on a 200-acre rural farm; most of that time she was the happiest she’d ever been. But when the community began to unravel, she moved back to Chicago and faced another intensely painful transition. The only thing that carried her through was gardening—starting with a vegetable patch in her parents’ backyard.

Since then, Jeanne has built more than 650 urban farms and food gardens in and around Chicago, in public parks and schoolyards, on restaurant rooftops, at synagogues, churches, shopping malls, inner-city shelters, suburban estates, even the mayor’s back yard. I was awed and motivated by Jeanne’s story, so much so that we decided to collaborate on her memoir, From The Ground Up: A Food-Grower’s Education in Life, Love, and the Movement that’s Changing the Nation.

Soil can function like a chemical anti-depressant.

As we researched the book, we found a trove of scientific studies explaining why nature can be such a powerful balm. There’s far too much to mention it all here, but a few key revelations follow. First: Soil can function like a chemical anti-depressant. A study from The University of Bristol in England in 2007 showed that a specific soil bacterium called Mycobacterium vaccae, when injected into mice, targets immune cells that stimulate the serotonin-releasing neurons in the brain—the very same neurons activated by Prozac.

We were amazed, too, by the research of Stephen and Rachel Kaplan, psychology professors at the University of Michigan, who have spent decades investigating why humans concentrate better after spending time in nature. They found that the natural world, with its many layers of sounds, smells, and textures, stimulates our involuntary attention, meaning we enter a state in which our awareness becomes effortlessly engaged in our surroundings. That state rests and restores our ability to exert voluntary attention, which helps us to be decisive and focused. The Kaplans’ research helps explain why leaders like Steve Jobs and Teddy Roosevelt famously spent hours a day walking outdoors to help their creative and decision-making processes. It may also explain why, in a University of Illinois study of 400 students with Attention Deficit Disorder and ADHD, the participants significantly improved their ability to focus after spending time outdoors.

In a University of Illinois study of 400 students with Attention Deficit Disorder and ADHD, the participants significantly improved their ability to focus after spending time outdoors.

Another remarkable study is described in the Outside magazine article, “Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning.” Author Florence Williams reported on the work of Qing Li from the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, who found that spending time outdoors can super-charge our immune systems. Li brought a group of city professionals into the woods to hike for three days, after which their blood tests showed a 40 percent jump in their “natural killer” immune cells (which attack tumors and virus-infected cells). When these same subjects walked around the city, their NK levels didn’t change. Florence also reported evidence that walking through forests, rather than urban landscapes, can significantly reduce the stress hormone cortisol, while also lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and sympathetic nerve activity.

Li brought a group of city professionals into the woods to hike for three days, after which their blood tests showed a 40 percent jump in their “natural killer” immune cells (which attack tumors and virus-infected cells).

All these pro-nature findings have motivated me to make some changes. I now push myself at least a couple times a week to swap out a yoga class for a hike in the woods, or at least a run through my neighborhood. And last summer, my family planted our first ten-foot-by-twelve-foot back-yard farm. I confess I’ve passed off most of the weed-pulling and vegetable harvesting to my kids, but I do get out there when I can, especially when I’m feeling blue. I dig my hands in the soil and do the quiet, steady work of gardening, waiting for my mood to lift. Amazingly, it does.

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