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Every time I see parents hosing the family down with antibacterial wipes, I wince a little, because in their pursuit of a squeaky clean lifestyle, they're also stripping off the beneficial bacteria that can help keep our guts and brains healthy and happy!
While it's unlikely that I'll be able to pry most people away from their antibacterial wipes anytime soon, one thing I do urge everyone to do is to go play in the dirt–as in, take up gardening! Be it a small box on a windowsill or a spacious garden patch, gardening is one of the simplest and most enjoyable ways I know to connect with those essential good bacteria to help improve the overall health of your body and brain.
So, gather up a few basic tools, and let's get our hands dirty. Here are five reasons to encourage you to start digging:
1) Those "dirty" microbes may cut anxiety and boost brain function.
When you dig in the dirt, you'll be also digging into mycobacterium vaccae, a soil-based organism that animal research has shown to play a positive role in gut and brain health, including lightening mood and anxiety. It may have similar positive effects in humans. My advice? Don't stress out about the dirt—play in it!
2) It beats an hour on the treadmill!
Gardening is exercise that gets results, and beautiful ones at that, be they in the form of blooming flowers or fresh-off-the-vine produce. As you spend time in the garden, you'll be working your muscles as you twist and turn, bend, lug, and tug. According to WebMD, you'll also be burning plenty of calories along the way, at a rate of roughly 200 – 400 per hour.
3) You already know the farmer.
When you grow your own herbs and produce, you know the source and the story of your food. You know the type of soil you used—hopefully, clean and nutrient-rich—and how you treated the plants as they grew, with plenty of sunshine and without chemical pesticides. The food you grow is food you can feel great about eating, not only from a taste and nutritional standpoint, but also as a point of pride!
4) Gardening is a mind-body therapy.
When you're tending and nurturing the earth, you're (most likely) outdoors, enjoying the breeze, and feeling the cool soil in your hands, literally connecting with the ground, a therapeutic connection in and of itself. You're taking in the sounds of chirping birds and the rustling trees, kind of like listening to a relaxation tape or video. And perhaps best of all, you're getting a dose of health-boosting vitamin D, which is also wonderful for immunity, mood, and gut health! To learn more about the power of dirt, take a look at The Dirt Cure by Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein.
5) Gardening makes good reading.
Another thing that makes gardening such a fabulous world to dig into—you can do it without knowing all that much, or you can go deep and study it forever, always learning about new techniques and interesting things to grow and enjoy. All that learning is good for your brain!
I like to think of myself as a student of the soil and another one of my favorite books is The Hidden Half of Nature by David Montgomery and Anne Bikle. It's a wonderful summer read that will inspire you to get in touch with all your microbial friends deep in the dirt.
Kathie Madonna Swift, MS, RDN, is the education director for the Center for Mind-Body Medicine's highly acclaimed Food As Medicine professional training program. She is also the cofounder of the Integrative and Functional Nutrition Academy, a comprehensive, 100%-online nutrition program for health-care professionals. Kathie pioneered innovative nutrition programs at Canyon Ranch Health Resorts, Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, and Dr. Mark Hyman's UltraWellness Center, and she continues to consult at all three organizations today. She is the author of two books on digestive health, including The Inside Tract: Your Good Gut Guide to Great Digestive Health and The Swift Diet: 4 Weeks to Mend the Belly, Lose the Weight, and Get Rid of the Bloat. Connect with Kathie at www.kathieswift.com