MEDICINE WHEEL: ‘The Healing Power of Gardens’, The Psychological & Physiological Consolations of Nature

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“…To garden – even merely to be in a garden – is nothing less than a triumph of resistance against the merciless race of modern life, so compulsively focused on productivity at the cost of creativity, of lucidity, of sanity; a reminder that we are creatures enmeshed with the great web of being”

The Healing Power of Gardens: Oliver Sacks on the Psychological and Physiological Consolations of Nature – By Maria Popva & Brain Pickings

“In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.”

Art by Violeta Lopíz and Valerio Vidali from The Forest by Riccardo Bozzi

“I work like a gardener,” the great painter Joan Miró wrote in his meditation on the proper pace for creative work. It is hardly a coincidence that Virginia Woolf had her electrifying epiphany about what it means to be an artist while walking amid the flower beds in the garden at St. Ives. Indeed, to garden – even merely to be in a garden – is nothing less than a triumph of resistance against the merciless race of modern life, so compulsively focused on productivity at the cost of creativity, of lucidity, of sanity; a reminder that we are creatures enmeshed with the great web of being, in which, as the great naturalist John Muir observed long ago, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe”; a return to what is noblest, which means most natural, in us. There is something deeply humanizing in listening to the rustle of a newly leaved tree, in watching a bumblebee romance a blossom, in kneeling onto the carpet of soil to make a hole for a sapling, gently moving a startled earthworm or two out of the way. Walt Whitman knew this when he weighed what makes life worth living as he convalesced from a paralytic stroke: “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on – have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear – what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons – the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.”

© Photograph by Bill Hayes from How New York Breaks Your Heart – Oliver Sacks at the New York Botanical Garden.

Those unmatched rewards, both psychological and physiological, is what beloved neurologist and author Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933-August 30, 2015) explores in a lovely short essay titled “Why We Need Gardens,” found in Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales (public library) – the wondrous posthumous collection that gave us Sacks on the life-altering power of libraries. He writes:
As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. All of us have had the experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit. The importance of these physiological states on individual and community health is fundamental and wide-ranging. In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical “therapy” to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener.

Having lived and worked in New York City for half a century – a city “sometimes made bearable… only by its gardens” – Sacks recounts witnessing nature’s tonic effects on his neurologically impaired patients: A man with Tourette’s syndrome, afflicted by severe verbal and gestural tics in the urban environment, grows completely symptom-free while hiking in the desert; an elderly woman with Parkinson’s disease, who often finds herself frozen elsewhere, can not only easily initiate movement in the garden but takes to climbing up and down the rocks unaided; several people with advanced dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, who can’t recall how to perform basic operations of civilization like tying their shoes, suddenly know exactly what to do when handed seedlings and placed before a flower bed. Sacks reflects:

“I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication”

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener.

More than half a century after the great marine biologist and environmental pioneer Rachel Carson asserted that “there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Sacks adds:

“Clearly, nature calls to something very deep in us. Biophilia, the love of nature and living things, is an essential part of the human condition. Hortophilia, the desire to interact with, manage, and tend nature, is also deeply instilled in us. The role that nature plays in health and healing becomes even more critical for people working long days in windowless offices, for those living in city neighborhoods without access to green spaces, for children in city schools, or for those in institutional settings such as nursing homes. The effects of nature’s qualities on health are not only spiritual and emotional but physical and neurological. I have no doubt that they reflect deep changes in the brain’s physiology, and perhaps even its structure”

Complement this particular fragment of the altogether delicious Everything in Its Place with naturalist Michael McCarthy on nature and joy, pioneering conservationist and Wilderness Act co-composer Mardy Murie on nature and human nature, and bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer on gardening and the secret of happiness, then revisit Oliver Sacks on nature and the interconnectedness of the universe, the building blocks of identity, the three essential elements of creativity, and his stunning memoir of a life fully lived.


A Simple Way to Reduce Stress – By Dr. Mercola

Gardening helps to relieve stress and “attention fatigue”
Gardeners are more likely than non-gardeners to report being “happy” and satisfied with their lives
Many gardeners start out gardening because they want to sample some homegrown food but end up sticking with gardening because of how it feeds their mind and soul

Gardening is one of life’s simple pleasures. Even if you don’t have a green thumb, digging in the dirt, planting and nurturing plant life fills a void in many people’s lives. Some call it spiritual while others describe it as therapeutic or stress relieving.
Indeed, planting a garden lets you connect with nature in a way that you probably crave, even if you don’t exactly realize it. This is why many people find gardening to be addictive — in a good way. What starts as a few flowerpots on your patio may soon morph into a flower bed or raised vegetable garden.

And that’s just part of the fun. The opportunities, and the benefits you may reap, are virtually endless, from harvesting the literal fruits of your labor to creating habitat for pollinators and beyond.

Why Is Gardening Good for You?

Most people start gardening because they have a desire to grow their own food and/or beautify or otherwise alter their landscape (such as planting shrubs for privacy). However, most people continue gardening because the benefits are just too good to pass up. Among them:

1. Stress Relief

A study published in the Journal of Health Psychology tested the stress-relieving effects of gardening among 30 people.1 First they performed a stressful task, then were assigned to either 30 minutes of outdoor gardening or 30 minutes of indoor reading.
Levels of the stress hormone cortisol were measured and the participants self-reported their mood.
While both gardening and reading led to decreases in cortisol, the decreases were more significant in the gardening group. Further, “positive mood was fully restored after gardening, but further deteriorated during reading.” This suggests that gardening promotes relief from acute stress.

2. Reduce Symptoms of “Attention Fatigue”

It’s suggested that people have a finite capacity for directed attention (the type required for sending emails, making phone calls, etc.). When this capacity gets used up, attention fatigue sets in and you may become irritable, easily distracted and stressed.
The symptoms of attention fatigue are similar to those felt by people with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), except that attention fatigue is considered a temporary condition that can be relieved by ample time for rest.
When you immerse yourself in nature, including via gardening, you get to take a break from directed attention and instead engage in “involuntary” or “effortless” attention.
This helps to relieve attention fatigue and has been linked to superior attention.2 Researcher Andrea Faber Taylor, Ph.D. in the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign told CNN:3
“The breeze blows, things get dew on them, things flower; the sounds, the smells … All of these draw on that form of attention.”

3. Improve Mental Health and Well-Being

According to a survey by Gardeners’ World magazine, 80 percent of gardeners reported being “happy” and satisfied with their lives compared to 67 percent of non-gardeners.4 Perhaps it’s no coincidence that gardeners are happier.
Mycobacterium vaccae is a type of bacteria commonly found in soil. Remarkably, this microbe has been found to “mirror the effect on neurons that drugs like Prozac provide.”5 It helps to stimulate serotonin production, helping to make you feel happier and more relaxed.
No wonder so many people describe their garden as their “happy place.” In one animal study, mice that ingested mycobacterium vaccae had a demonstrated reduction in anxiety and improved learning.
The researchers noted that natural exposure to microbes may be important for emotional health and behavior:6
“Recent studies show that contact with tolerogenic microbes is important for the proper functioning of immunoregulatory circuits affecting behavior, emotionality and health …
Collectively, our results suggest a beneficial effect of naturally delivered, live M. vaccae on anxiety-related behaviors … supporting a positive role for ambient microbes in the immunomodulation of animal behavior.”

4. Benefit Brain Health

A systematic review examined the impact of gardens and outdoor spaces on the mental and physical well-being of people with dementia.
The research suggested that garden use, whether it be watering plants, walking through a garden or sitting in one, leads to decreased levels of agitation or anxiety among the patients.7
Spending time in a garden may also help to reduce your risk of developing dementia in the first place. As reported by CNN:8
“Two separate studies that followed people in their 60s and 70s for up to 16 years found, respectively, that those who gardened regularly had a 36 percent and 47 percent lower risk of dementia than non-gardeners, even when a range of other health factors were taken into account.
These findings are hardly definitive, but they suggest that the combination of physical and mental activity involved in gardening may have a positive influence on the mind.”

5. Exercise

Gardening gets you up and moving about, which is beneficial on multiple levels. In fact, gardening can even be a moderate to high-intensity workout, depending on which tasks you do.
According to research published in HortTechnology, digging and raking give you a high-intensity workout while the following gardening tasks are akin to a moderate-intensity workout:9
Sowing seeds
Mixing growing medium
Planting transplants

Adding to gardening’s allure is the fact that it represents functional exercise. Movements such as pushing, pulling, lifting and digging work multiple muscle groups at a time and keep you adept at the types of movements you need to function on a daily basis.
Plus, gardening helps to improve balance, flexibility and sensory perception.

6. Increased Nutrition

The National Garden Association (NGA) estimates that while the average U.S. family spends $70 per year to plant a vegetable garden, they grow about $600 worth of produce — that’s a $530 return on your investment.10
Further, the extra nutrients you’ll gain from eating your harvest of fresh fruits and vegetables is immeasurable in terms of its benefit to your health. Not to mention, people who garden tend to eat more produce in general.
According to one study published in the American Journal of Public Health, 56 percent of those who planted a community garden ate fruits and vegetables at least five times a day compared to 25 percent of non-gardeners.11

7. Existential Meaning

Research suggests that gardening goes far beyond the practical purpose of growing plants for food. A study in the Journal of Aging Research even suggested it could have a beneficial impact on the aging process by giving people an intimate connection with life itself. The researchers explained:12

” … we can propose that gardens and gardening represent multidimensional phenomena in the lives of many older adults and it is much more than a physical activity in a designated space where time and energy are exerted for cultivating fruits and vegetables.
Gardens and gardening can also represent an intimate connection with life itself through caring and being a steward for living organisms that also reciprocate with nourishment, aesthetics, and existential meaning in the context of senescence.

… the added dimension of environmental connection and awareness into the experience of the aging process could serve as a template for a new “elder culture” and a sustainable future.”

School Gardens May Boost Kids’ Grades

All of these gardening benefits are not restricted to adults. Only about 27 percent of public elementary schools in the U.S. have a school garden, but those that do experience significant benefits, including enhanced academic performance and increased fruit and vegetable intake among the students.13

For instance, teachers at schools with gardens note that the students seem more engaged in learning and scores on standardized tests have risen up to 15 percent. Jeanne McCarty, CEO of REAL School Gardens, told CNN:14

“The guiding principle is that if we can get kids more engaged with learning, there would be a better foundation for academic success later on … Kids are more engaged in real world, hands-on learning, particularly at the elementary school level.”




2 thoughts on “MEDICINE WHEEL: ‘The Healing Power of Gardens’, The Psychological & Physiological Consolations of Nature

  1. Pingback: MEDICINE WHEEL: ‘The Healing Power of Gardens’, The Psychological & Physiological Consolations of Nature — RIELPOLITIK | Auntie Dogma's Garden Spot

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