Playing in the Dirt Provides Natural High

SONY DSCHey, I’m not kidding. Actual legitimate verifiable scientific studies have found soil bacteria that release a compound that triggers our brain to release serotonin – a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good. Haven’t you every wondered why you feel so peaceful and serene when you garden? I did. For years I called gardening my “Zen work-out” but now I know why. A Dr. Chris Lowry and colleagues at Bristol University in the UK discovered that a particular soil bacterium can make you feel good; specifically they became intrigued by a study that claimed cancer patients treated with a particular bacterium experienced an “increase in quality of life.” The good doctors speculated that brain chemistry was at play. So they¬† did some experimentation themselves…

When they treated mice with Mycobacterium vaccae they found that it did indeed activate a particular group of brain neurons that produce serotonin – in the interfascicular part of the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRI) of the mice, to be precise. (

What this means to me, is that I haven’t been imagining things — playing in the dirt all these years really HAS helped alleviate my stress. Back when I was commuting three hours a day, my daily solace was my garden. I’d get home, kick off my shoes and head out the back door to walk barefoot through the soft soil of my garden — to weed, plant, or harvest as needed. I could literally feel the pressures of my job lift away as my mind quieted. Often I would end up waxing philosophical as I pulled weeds. I didn’t count the minutes, I didn’t schedule how much gardening I needed to complete — I’d just putter in the garden until I was peaceful. Then I’d sit back in a chair on my deck with grubby fingers grasping a cold glass of Chai spice ice tea and relax.

I love science. As a semi-retired scientist I am constantly amazed and delighted by each new discovery — but this particular surprise tickles me to no end. Every day now that I literally get down and dirty growing my Cannabis and flowers and vegetables, I whisper a little thank-you to Mycobacterium vaccae, wherever it may be, for my Zen experience in the dirt…


“Identification of an immune-responsive mesolimbocortical serotonergic system: Potential role in regulation of emotional behavior.”
C.A. Lowry, J.H. Hollisa, A. de Vriesa, B. Pana, L.R. Brunetb, J.R.F. Huntb, J.F.R. Patonc, E. van Kampena, D.M. Knighta, A.K. Evansa, G.A.W. Rookb and S.L. Lightmana.
Neuroscience Available online 28 March 2007

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