Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Natural high: Is soil an antidepressant?

Community members explore the Raymond Avenue Neighborhood Garden.
Community members explore the Raymond Avenue Neighborhood Garden.
Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust

Gardeners are a dedicated lot. My father was one, committing himself to a battery of flowerbeds and vegetable gardens upon retirement. He never seemed happier than he did when he was up to his elbows in dirt, tending to a patch of tomatoes or marveling at his beloved jalapeno peppers.

According to a report by Discover magazine, there was a definite reason for it. Scientists at the University of Bristol in England have identified a particular soil bacterium — Mycobacterium vaccae, to be exact — that just might naturally help alleviate depression.

Through experiments on laboratory mice, head neuroscientist Christopher Lowry and his team have evidence that the bacteria triggers the same serotonin-releasing neurons in the brain as Prozac.

“What we think happens is that the bacteria activate immune cells, which release chemicals called cytokines that then act on receptors on the sensory nerves to increase their activity,” is how Lowry explained the findings to Discover.

Their studies have found that the bacteria can work simply through inhaling it while working in the dirt or even just a walk in the great outdoors. It can also be ingested through water sources or eating produce picked from a fresh garden.

There are potential medical applications as well, with University College London immunologist and co-author of the study offering that depression could be partly the result of inflammatory disorders, and possibly treatable with the bacteria.