Soil as an Antidepressant

Written by Brooke Newberry

Cooped up and shuttered in place in a time of doubt and insecurity means many of us are holding on to the edge of our sanity, searching for answers and escapes. Bill Mollison, renowned biologist and co-creator of permaculture, held the stance that “the solutions to complex problems can oftentimes be relatively simple.” Ivy Joeva, host of the Future of Food podcast, interviewed Loretta Allison, a holistic gardening consultant, about why she believes our backyards, porches, and even the narrowest of windowsills might just be the prescription we all need.

As we’re being forced via long lines and the disappearance of common products to pay more attention to our current and future food systems, many of us are casting a shy glance toward what it means to grow their own food. For urban dwellers, the modern food system has made the process of growing one’s own hard to fathom. While it may sound daunting, Allison reminds us that the labor and philosophy behind it are actually relatively simple and straightforward and that getting your hands dirty has mental health benefits. We’ve all probably heard the mom-slung hypothesis that “playing in the dirt boosts the immune system” and that nature brings peace, but taken a step further — can mini microbes in our soil act on our moods?

 I always joke like gardening’s like the mafia. Once you’re in, there’s no getting out. – Loretta Allison

We’ve already seen the hobby growers and plant influencers on our social media feeds. Millennials are greening up their abodes quicker than they can water their new dependents. Thriving, verdant visuals are indeed relaxing, but it’s really learning the dirt that empowers the soothing self-application of common sense in uncommon times. There are studies 1“Exposure to friendly soil bacteria could improve mood by boosting the immune system just as effectively as antidepressant drugs, a new study suggests. Researchers exposed mice to a harmless soil microbe called Mycobacterium vaccae and had the rodents perform a behavioral task commonly used to test the efficacy of antidepressant drugs.” Source: LiveScience, Depressed? Play In the Dirtthat suggest soil bacteria working in the same way as Prozac. 2The drug-like effects of this soil bacteria were discovered, quite by accident, about a decade ago. A doctor named Mary O’Brien created a serum out of the bacteria and gave it to lung-cancer patients, in hopes that it might boost their immune systems. Instead, she noticed another effect: “The hospital patients perked up. They reported feeling happier and suffered from less pain than the patients who did not receive doses of bacteria. Further studies in mice confirmed the mood-boosting effect of the soil bugs.” Source: How to Get High on Soil, the Atlantic

As Zoë Schlanger wrote in Quartz:  “Your garden has its own microbiome, and research suggests it’s good for you. Our health depends on the flourishing microbiome in our guts—and on how much of the natural world’s microbiome we let infiltrate.”

Microbes  — part of that microbiome — are tiny living things found in the soil, which, Allison says, is the most important element in the growing process. She is an advocate of the extraordinary virtue of classic common sense when it comes to tending to plants. She interestingly implies that we can apply the same practices and principles of gardening and permaculture to our everyday lives. Allison reiterates the benefits of a feedback loop — focusing on the relationships between the components of a system versus the individual components themselves. If we give ourselves the space to observe, we can develop an intimate relationship with what we’re growing and receive feedback in a way that mimics a relationship. In a time of uncertainty, digging in the damp soil with an intention of nurture and logic can bring about great relief. She suggests it can be as simple as starting with just one pot, adding more to your green team over time.

I also like to think of it as designing with plain old common sense, common sense that we’ve kind of lost. There are 12 permaculture principles, some are recognizing patterns, just observing and interacting without judging — just observing. – Loretta Allison

In the episode, Allison prefaces about coming off a bit esoteric, but she reminds us that it’s actually not that far out. We’re simply talking about getting back to our roots (no pun intended) and using native intelligence as the spoken language of gardening. Allison is convinced that the mental benefits of soil tending and the urban gardening movement will soon achieve the same status that meditation has garnered in the wellness spotlight — or perhaps will even be discovered as a form of meditation. When we are told to set aside our usual routines — plants that need us for nurture and growth come to us as a form of self-care.

It feels good to go get your hands in the earth. You know, the soil is an antidepressant. When you put your hands on the soil, the microbes in the soil react with your skin and it has an antidepressant quality, you know, so we literally get to ground ourselves. – Loretta Allison

We can use the pending state of our everyday to become more aware of where our food comes from and the part we play as individuals in our global and local food systems. Gardening is going to be a really powerful activity in the masked movement toward the ever so mysterious “new normal.” Whether it be the fruits of your labor, a lesson in communication, or a remedying composting session, gardening is a low-risk investment that yields results. Trial and error is on-brand at the moment, and we’d do well to remember that it’s about the journey, not the output. In the episode, Allison visits the basics of soil enrichment and planting your own food. She also suggests that the easiest way for backyard (or windowsill) growers to first consume something homegrown is through tea, the gardener’s gateway drug to fruits and tubers. She recommends a few more uncommon perennial plants to start with: tulsi (also known as Holy Basil), stinging nettle, and lemon balm.

I love it when you can grow something that costs a lot of money at Lassens or Whole Foods. A box of calendula tea costs $7 or you can just grow it on your own and it’s really, really easy. – Loretta Allison