Your brain on gardening: Nature’s way of boosting those feel-good chemicals
T here has been no better teacher during my time as a human on planet Earth than the garden. To be fully immersed, connected and involved with the secret world of creation has been nothing short of mystical magic. Indeed, it’s a magic that can be described with science; which, like the Dalai Lama, I believe are one and the same.
I believe that spending time in the garden literally bestows the keys to happiness and serves as a catalyst to heal self and society, and to reverse the ravaging of the planet that modern civilization has caused.
I am an urban farmer by trade. My craft also serves as a vehicle for agricultural therapy. Working with plants, spending time outside, and eating well have provided measurable boosts to the physical and mental health of dozens of individuals who have participated in the program that I run. We call this “mojo restoration,” and the secret of our success can be summed up in the acronym NOURISH.
I came upon this concept while watching a TED Talk from Jolene Park, a functional nutritionist and wellness coach. NOURISH is a simple collection of techniques that are proven to release and replenish the “feel good” chemicals in the brain. These neurotransmitters are responsible for feelings of pleasure, satisfaction and reduced anxiety.
The first neurotransmitter that contributes to good mental health is gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA for short. GABA does a number of tasks in the brain, such as motor control, but also serves to regulate anxiety. The second is dopamine, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and muscle movement, and is crucial in the brain’s pleasure and reward systems. The third is serotonin, a vital chemical responsible for regulating emotion, mood, and overall feelings of happiness.
NOURISH concisely sums up what many of us gardeners experience without ever stopping to name what’s happening. Time in the garden provides tangible mental health benefits by releasing and replenishing the three neurotransmitters that regulate our mood. These chemicals are of critical importance in maintaining positive mental health. If you or someone you know suffers from depression, lack of purpose, or other mental health issues, please invite them to spend some time in the garden!
Now, perhaps more than ever, is a time for healing. I’m talking about doing the serious and difficult work of repairing our relationships with the planet, each other, and our selves. Healing is easier when coupled with happiness, and the recipe for happiness is below.
N= Notice nature
Research has shown that being surrounded by nature, whether immersed in a forest or pruning tomatoes in the garden, provides a measurable boost in the brain of dopamine, serotonin and GABA, the “feel good” chemicals. Hospital patients who have a window where they can see even a single tree recover faster and request less pain medication than patients who do not. It takes only 20 minutes of actively enjoying nature to receive the boost!
Spending time in the garden is inherently an immersive and interactive experience in nature. Additionally, having one’s hands in living soil serves to reinforce the microbiome, as certain mood-regulating classes of bacteria that live in a healthy human gut are found, and acquired, in the soil. Go ahead, kiss the earth, it’ll make you smile; and it’s a boss move.
O= Observe the breath
There is no medication on the market that can boost the calm response in the brain. This is the opposite mental state of the stressful “fight or flight” response, and this calm state can be easily activated by breathing deep into the belly. When the breath is regulated, neurotransmitters in the brain are regulated. Stop, take a deep breath; notice how it makes you feel.
Taking time to breathe deeply, observing the breath, is a powerful tool. Spending time in the garden or outdoors naturally slows and deepens the breath. The garden operates at a different speed than the blitzkrieg pace of American life. Tune into the garden, tune out the world, and slow your pace and your breath for a moment. Compost your stress and transform it into chillaxation. Boss move.
U= Unite with others
“The research is solid. Close social bonds, community, and connection have a direct impact on our nervous system,” says Jolene Park. When it comes to healing the divide that’s been consciously crafted by political forces, there are few tools more powerful than sharing fresh produce from your garden. No matter the political persuasion or how radically different another person seems to me, I’ve always been able to find common ground talking about food or flowers. And right now, what the world needs is for you to connect with others in an authentic and meaningful way, even if they don’t agree with you politically. This is good for society, and great for your mental health.
R= Replenish with food
When you eat protein, whether animal or vegetable, it breaks down into amino acids. These serve as the building blocks to dopamine, serotonin and GABA. Healthy fats, especially Omega-3’s, also contain the raw materials for the creation and proper function of your neurotransmitters. When you eat carbohydrates, give preference to those found in vegetables, especially dark leafy greens, which contain B vitamins. B vitamins are involved in the synthesis of serotonin, dopamine and GABA.
In the garden, you are literally growing the vitamins and minerals to help replenish your neurotransmitters. (You also need a bit of complete protein, which provides the amino acid building blocks). The fresher the produce, the more nutrients they contain. And when grown organically in living soil, this produce also serves to reinforce a healthy microbiome. A healthy microbiome is the key to a robust immune system and stellar physical and mental health. Ferment some of that harvest, and you’re really taking this thing to the next level. Boss move.
I= initiate movement
Moving the body stimulates good mental health by boosting neurotransmitters, particularly GABA. Playing in the garden is nothing short of a cross between yoga and Crossfit! Bending, squatting, stretching and lifting are the tricks of the trade, and this movement provides an important tool for wellness. Spread some mulch, pull some weeds, turn your compost; it’s easy to be active while gardening. I find it hilarious that so many people spend money on a gym membership to simulate work, when one could do the same actions and actually accomplish something.
S= Sit in stillness
While the garden is full of action, it’s also a great place to sit and be still. By taking a moment to reflect and observe the garden, we give our mind and body a chance to take a peaceful pause from the chaos and pressure of the world we live in today. This also gives the mind an opportunity to replenish GABA, serotonin and dopamine. Whether watching pollinators visit flowers or meditating on what next year’s garden will look like, taking a moment to rest and clear the mind is a simple and powerful tool.
H = Harness your creativity
Planting and nurturing a garden is an inherently creative action. Planting a seed that germinates into a seedling and then grows to maturity is literally participating in creation. Cutting flowers and arranging them is participating in the creation of art. Even planning a planting calendar and planting map during the cold winter months is a creative exercise.
“Dopamine loves the creative flow,” says Jolene Park. “By engaging with the flow of creation, one not only feels the pleasurable glow of dopamine, one boosts its production as well, leading to lasting satisfaction.”
Fellow and future Boss Gardeners, I hope these words serve to help you. I hope my many columns from over the years will serve as a resource and inspiration to keep you growing.
There is a revolution at hand, and I am dedicated to working as a creator, not a consumer. Until we read again, may your body be healthy, your soil wealthy, and may your cup only overflow when you are outdoors.
James Loomis is a full-time urban farmer, educator and keeper of the Old Cherry Orchard (aka OchO), a permaculture farm. He lives in Salt Lake City.