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Playing in the dirt might improve your mental health, studies show

“The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just on the body, but the soul.” — Alfred Austin

The 19th century poet laureate was on to something, according to 21st century studies. Working in the garden — or just playing in the dirt — might just ease your depression and otherwise improve your mental health.

One study, from the University of Colorado in Boulder and funded by the American Cancer Society, found those who participated in community gardening not only ate more fiber and got more exercise, but also saw significant reduction in their stress levels.

“These findings provide concrete evidence that community gardening could play an important role in preventing cancer, chronic diseases and mental health disorders,” senior author Jill Litt, a professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at CU Boulder, told Neuroscience News.

For the study, Litt recruited nearly 300 adults who didn’t normally garden. Half were put in a community garden group, and half were a control group asked to wait a year before planting.

The gardening group was given a community garden plot, some seeds and seedlings, and a course on gardening conducted by Denver Urban Gardens.

Both groups kept track of their nutrition, mental health and body measurement, and wore activity monitors.

In addition to an increase in fiber consumption and physical activity, the gardening group also saw lower stress and anxiety levels.

“Putting your hands in the soil releases ‘feel good’ chemicals in the brain and grounds the nervous system, " Hannah Brents, LICSW, of Safe Talk Therapy in Boston, told Psycom. Studies on mice have found healthy bacteria that live in the soil increase serotonin levels and reduce anxiety.

A University of Florida study, meanwhile, found gardening lowered depression, stress and anxiety in healthy women.

“Past studies have shown that gardening can help improve the mental health of people who have existing medical conditions or challenges. Our study shows that healthy people can also experience a boost in mental well-being through gardening,” Charles Guy, the principal investigator on the study and a professor emeritus in the UF/IFAS Environmental Horticulture Department, explained to Psycom.

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