Can Dirt Make Us Happy?

Over the years I’ve worked with hospitals and a couple nursing homes. I remember thinking, I hope I don’t end up at some of these places.

Sterile and institution-like, many of these buildings were built back in the fifties when their main purpose was to house a person until it was their time to go. And that’s exactly the vibe I felt when visiting…you go there to die.

Thankfully, with the human race living much longer, I’ve seen a big change in nursing home facilities. Today, I work with a company that has changed their focus from preparing you to die to providing a higher quality of life. Their facilities include interior atriums, screened porches, scenic outdoor trails and social events such as horticulture lessons. Why, this drastic change to incorporate plants and nature? It’s because the corporate senior industry has realized what us gardeners have known all along — working with plants and flowers has a therapeutic effect. But why gardening makes us feel better maybe more than just fresh air and natural beauty.

Christopher Lowry, a neuroscientist at the University of Bristol, noticed that human cancer patients treated with Mycobacterium vaccae began experiencing a higher quality of life. Dr. Lowry believed the neurons in the brain that affect serotonin levels were being activated by the friendly bacteria. To test his theory, he exposed mice to the good bacteria and found their levels of serotonin increased while the control group showed no response. From these studies, he and his colleagues realized an imbalance in the immune system can lead to depression.

This is why many scientists are theorizing the increase in child allergies, skin issues and depression has increased due to our lifestyles becoming too cleanly. Our lack of exposure to dirt and the outdoors has hindered our immune systems from attaining this beneficial bacteria. Dr. Lowry himself was quoted as saying, “we all should be playing more in the dirt.”

Lucky, for many people with an aversion to dirt, nature has designed itself so that rolling around in the mud isn’t the only way to reap the benefits of healthy bacteria. While digging our hands into the earth is one way of attaining the good mycobacterium, it is also believed that we are also exposed to this airborne bacteria simply by taking nature walks. In addition, eating plants pulled from the ground, such as lettuce, will also expose us to this healthy bacteria through the soil residue left behind.

Will Mycobacterium vaccae someday replace antidepressant medication? A lot more research has to be done before the scientific community will confirm this. But as a grandmother, the next time my granddaughter picks her cheerio off the ground and eats it, I won’t feel guilty about invoking the five second rule. In fact, I may show her how to make mud pie.

Sherry has been part of the interiorscape industry for over fifteen years, starting at an entry level job at North Florida's largest greenhouse and currently owning two horticulture companies. At UMaine, Sherry majored in English where she worked part-time writing scripts for a local college TV studio.

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