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Get Dirty to Get Joy- Bacteria in Soil Acts as Antidepressant

Submitted by on February 24, 2012 – 2:16 pm4 Comments

A bacteria found in soil called Mycobacterium has been found to effect the same neurons as Prozac, offering people a natural lift in mood.  This is just one more great reason to get out in the garden and grow your own foods. Not a green thumb? Just spending time in areas with rich soil will allow you to breath in these great benefits.Intelligentactile

Imagine: You’re feeling so depressed that you visit your doctor and request a prescription for a mood elevator. Instead of writing you a prescription for Prozac or a similar antidepressant, she advises you to get dirty. While you consider changing doctors, she describes how getting dirty changes your brain chemistry. The microbes in dirt, she says, tweak the same neurons that are stimulated by Prozac. Your options, she explains, are an expensive drug plus its possible side effects, or gardening, yard work, or a romp in the park. Your doctor, it turns out, hasn’t gone round the bend. She is actually up-to-date on the latest scientific findings about how the natural environment affects our brain function.

The dirt-and-Prozac connection surfaced a couple of years ago from Dr. Chris Lowry and his colleagues at the University of Bristol and University College London. They exposed lung cancer patients to a common, inoffensive microbe called Mycobacterium vaccae, found in soil. The patients unexpectedly reported increases in their quality of life, including a brighter mood. The researchers wondered if this effect was caused by stimulation of neurons in the patients’ brains that produce serotonin, a feel-good chemical.

Taking the next step, they broke up M. vaccae into fragments with sound waves and injected them into the windpipes of anesthetized mice. When compared to controls, the mice exposed to M. vaccae had more activity in serotonin-producing neurons and higher levels of serotonin in several areas of the brain. “[The bacteria] had the exact same effect as antidepressant drugs,” Dr. Lowry said. The scientists said that one might derive dirt’s benefit directly by rooting around in a vegetable garden, or by eating lettuce or carrots picked from that garden. Popular media ran with the findings. ”Is Dirt the New Prozac?” asked Discover magazine.

The dirt-and-Prozac connection fits with a recent idea in medicine called the “hygiene hypothesis.” According to this concept, exposure early in life to the bacteria, fungi, and viruses found in common, everyday dirt is necessary to stimulate our immune system. When children are exposed to the stew of microbes in dirt, their immune systems become stronger. The immune system also learns to ignore substances like pollen or the dandruff of pets, which can trigger asthma and allergies. Researchers have shown, for example, that kids who grow up in dirty environments such as farms have a lower incidence of infections, asthma, allergies, and eczema later in life, compared to kids raised in urban environments in which parents try to keep them squeaky clean.

For a century and a half we have waged merciless war on filth through public health measures such as public sanitation systems and water purification programs. These developments have been enormously successful. The increase in lifespan in modern societies is due largely to the reduction of death rates from diseases such as typhoid and cholera, which in nineteenth-century America were called “filth diseases.”

We have to wonder, however, if we have gone too far in our obsession with hygiene. Throughout our evolutionary history our ancestors lived in intimate contact with dirt, and its influence, we now see, was not all bad. We evolved in the outdoors, and we are beginning to glimpse the price we are paying for shutting ourselves off from nature.

Don’t worry. Nobody is suggesting that we never bathe or clean our bathrooms. Neither is it necessary to inject M. vaccae into our windpipe. If we merely go for a walk in the woods, grub around in our vegetable garden, or weed our flowerbeds, we get a dose of the good bugs simply by inhaling.

“Nature deficiency disorder” has been proposed as a term for the problems we create when we build a wall between the natural world and ourselves. I am highly susceptible to this malady. When I spend too much time indoors, I become increasingly moody and morose. There’s only one cure: take a hike, go camping, or root around in my veggie garden. These activities are more than a hobby; they have become an essential part of my life and an important element in my personal health plan.

What about kids? Not so long ago, play and getting dirty were pretty much the same thing — frolicking in a sand box, making mud pies, romping in parks. Now many parents are horrified by dirty play. Keeping kids spotless and unsoiled, however, may be setting them up for trouble later on, because without exposure to nature’s medley of microbes our kids can grow up with confused, weak immune systems. Can we rethink the prohibition on dirty play for the sake of our children’s health?

Antidepressant medication can sometimes be a treatment of choice. It can work wonders, and in some instances can be life-saving. But if your doctor advises you to get dirty instead of taking a pill to perk up your mood, don’t look at her strangely. Pride yourself on having a physician who is on the cutting edge.

Think of it this way: Have you ever seen an unhappy earthworm?

By – H. L. Mencken





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  • corneilius says:

    It is to my mind at least a question of simple logic.

    We humans have emerged from nature. Nature is a collection of multitudes of non-linear nurturant processes, where the collective behaviour of all the organisms tends to increase the fecundity of the habitat, and includes increasing the diversity of life-forms who interact with each other across many levels. Herbivores eat grass, their poo feeds the grass, some of their bodies feed predators, their rotting corpses – whether they die by predation or old age etc – feed both the soil, the subsoil and a multitude of micro organisms who also feed the soil and sub soil, thus making the habitat more and more fecund.

    We are part of this process, not separate from it.

    Bacteria are amazing organisms. They metabolise materials and release much that is essential for the well being of all life.

    I feel that they get a bad press because since some of them are found in large quantities at the site of pathologies, they are all too easily blamed for the pathology to disguise the other elements that create pathologies – such as ‘nature deficit syndrome’, stress and trauma… elements that certain Societally Powerful sectors would rather we did not recognise as pathological.

    I love mud. Demudcracy, the great leveller!

  • crawdad slapababy says:

    they broke the bacteria into fragments using sound waves” WOW. seems like rife’s work isn’t dead! what a nice thing to see in an article that practices like this are commonplace in some scientific circles!

  • Paul Fratianni says:

    I can attest when I work out in my garden that I usually feel rejuvenated and in a good mood. I just thought it was psychological from getting in touch with nature and getting my blood going etc. But now it seems there is more to learn about why I may be having such positive experiences.

    I’ve heard that in the past most people weren’t depressed unlike how there are so many today. Well a hundred years ago most of the population of America was agrarian which meant they got their hands in the soil. This seems to validate the correlation of working with the earth and being uplifted.

  • Mary Saunders says:

    Articles like this are opening Cornucopia’s jail cell. The vilification of life is summed up with the horrible use of the word “invasive” as a marketing tool by certain entities who behave like the Borg. So, exactly what other planet did dandelion come from? Sea grasses? Mangrove? When I hear that word, I can’t help but throw it back at the borg-like creature saying it.

    Sheesh. How did humans get so lame.

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