When we were kids, it didn’t take much to put a smile on our faces. Give us a bucket, spade and a mound of dirt and we’d happily entertain ourselves for hours! But as we get older, our responsibilities get more serious and our expectations get higher. Happiness no longer feels as effortless and instead becomes something we need to chase, through material things and ticking off goals. But it turns out, we might be on to something when we were playing in the dirt! New research shows that the bacteria in soil may be beneficial for our mental health.
It all started back in 2004, when Mary O’Brien, an oncologist at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, published a paper with surprising results. She had injected lung cancer patients with a common, harmless soil bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae, with hopes of prolonging their lives. It didn’t work, but it suceeded in aother way. O’Brien wrote that the bacteria injection “significantly improved patient quality of life.” She elaborated that her patients were happier, more energetic and had greater cognitive function.
Since then, scientists have been researching the impact of the bacteria on our moods. In 2007, Christopher Lowry, a neuroscientist at the University of Bristol, injected M. vaccae into mice and subjected them to a series of stress tests. The mice injected with the bacteria showed far less stressed behaviour than their untreated counterparts — as if they were on anti-depressants.
Scientists believe this is because the bacteria reduces inflammation — which has been linked to depression and anxiety. When Lowry repeated a similar study last year, he found that the injected mice not only exhibited less anxious behaviour, but also had less colon inflammation. Lowry is still trying to figure out the best way to harness the healing powers of the M. vaccae bacteria — he’s currently inspecting 300 soil samples from across the US and Europe. Hopefully, it will one day be available in supplement form like its close relative, fulvic acid!
Until then, Lowry says the best way to have more M. Vaccae in your life is by developing a green thumb. A three to four leaf spinach plant has over 800 species of bacteria inside it, so if you grow (and eat) your own produce, you’re likely to get your dose. You may even be able to make some cash by selling your leftovers!