Girl Planting seeds

What Does Your Garden Grow

52D27502-AA8C-46A3-B6EA-34221A23642D_(1)_(1)By Ben Kligler, MD. I have written a number of times in this newsletter on the many reasons to eat a healthy—organic if possible—diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables. The evidence for a Mediterranean-style plant-based diet in preventing heart disease and stroke, keeping blood pressure down, and reducing diabetes risk is clear as day. And I have also written about the health benefits of spending time outdoors—what it does for both our physical and mental health to connect with the natural world, not to mention to get a little exercise.
So maybe it makes sense to put these things together and write this time about the growing evidence of the health benefits of gardening. I have had the good fortune in thepast few years to be able to plant and tend a medium size organic garden at our home in Vermont—which is where the photos you will see accompanying this message were  taken. But prior to having that house, we have had gardens in all kinds of other places—a community garden in Jamaica Plain, Boston, a roof deck on Manhattan, and our tiny (17 feet wide total) backyard in Brooklyn. And all of those gardens have brought me both the physical and psychological benefits we are now finding described in the scientific literature.
One recent review pulled together 22 studies examining the health effects of gardening—including “horticultural therapy,” which is defined as “the use of plants and plant-based activity for the purpose of human healing and rehabilitation,” taking it a bit beyond simple vegetable gardening—and found substantial improvements in many areas including anxiety, depression, and body mass index. This study also found that gardeners experienced improved quality of life as well as increased life satisfaction and sense of community. 1A6A03422-9CF8-4BBD-8A5E-B938860B8BDE_(1)_(1)

A second review specifically focused on the physical benefits confirmed a significant improvement in body mass index—obviously an important finding because of the connection between overweight and obesity and so many other health conditions. 2 A third recent review which included 20 studies looked specifically at older adults. Because elders are particularly at risk for depression and social isolation, it makes sense that they might especially benefit from gardening. In fact, this review did find significant improvements in social relationships, quality of life, anxiety and depression, as well as an improvement in cognitive function. 3

Of course, there are many different potential ways in which involvement in gardening might be producing these benefits: increase in physical exercise for one, and improved access to healthy foods another. But one of the most intriguing potential reasons for the benefit is the social dimension of gardening. A recent study in Singapore—a highly compressed urban environment—studied a group of adults participating in community gardening and compared them to people gardening on their own at home and to non-gardeners. The results showed significantly greater reported well-being in the community gardeners, along with a greater sense of resilience and optimism, suggesting that the social component of working together with others might be an important contributor to the mental health benefits of gardening. 4 A similar study from Japan included 332 people participating in community gardening and found similar improvements in physical, social and psychological help when participants were compared to non-gardeners. 5
A final exciting example of the potential of gardening is the “Edible Schoolyard” project, developed by Alice Waters to bring gardening and nutritional awareness into schools. REAL School Gardens works in low-income schools to create these Edible Schoolyards, first by bringing volunteers from the school and from the community together to build and design the garden. Then in the next step they train teachers in a multi-year program on how to use these schoolyard gardens to help with student engagement in school and even with overall academic performance. The schools engaged in this program typically show a 12-15% increase in pass rates on standardized tests. 6
So although I do feel blessed to have my garden in Vermont, the evidence clearly shows that the same benefits I have been experiencing from working that garden are found across the board, whether the gardeners are doing their work in schools or in community gardens, and whether they are elementary school students or their grandparents and elders.

Dr._KliglerDr. Kligler is the Medical Advisor for The Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center®. He is also the National Director of the Integrative Health Coordinating Center for the Veterans Health Administration and Research Director for the Office of Patient Centered Care & Cultural Transformation. He was the founding  Director  of the Beth Israel Fellowship Program in Integrative Medicine, and teaches in the Beth Israel Residency Program in Urban Family Practice. Dr. Kligler is the author of Curriculum in Complementary Therapies: A Guide for the Medical Educator, and co-editor of Integrative Medicine: Principles for Practice, a textbook published by McGraw-Hill. He is also Co-Editor-in-Chief of the peer-reviewed journal Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing.
1 Soga M, Gaston KJ, Yamaura Y. Gardening is beneficial for health: A meta-analysis. Prev Med
Rep. 2016 Nov 14;5:92-99. doi: 10.1016/j.pmedr.2016.11.007. PMID: 27981022; PMCID:
2 Kunpeuk W, et al The impact of gardening on nutrition and physical health outcomes: a
systematic review and meta-analysis, Health Promotion International, Volume 35, Issue 2, April
2020, Pages 397–408,
3 Nicholas SO, Giang AT, Yap PLK. The Effectiveness of Horticultural Therapy on Older Adults:
A Systematic Review. J Am Med Dir Assoc. 2019 Oct;20(10):1351.e1-1351.e11. doi:
10.1016/j.jamda.2019.06.021. Epub 2019 Aug 8. PMID: 31402135.
4 Koay WI, Dillon D. Community Gardening: Stress, Well-Being, and Resilience Potentials. Int J
Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Sep 16;17(18):6740. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17186740. PMID:
32947857; PMCID: PMC7558991.
5 Soga M, Cox DT, Yamaura Y, Gaston KJ, Kurisu K, Hanaki K. Health Benefits of Urban
Allotment Gardening: Improved Physical and Psychological Well-Being and Social Integration.
Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017 Jan 12;14(1):71. doi: 10.3390/ijerph14010071. PMID:
28085098; PMCID: PMC5295322.
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