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Garden or horticultural therapy refers to the activities involved while taking care of a garden or an allotment, such as digging, watering and pruning. Milder forms of garden therapy, suitable for elder people, simply allow the patient to wander in a controlled natural environment (aka wander gardens) and be in touch with nature. Research suggests that garden therapy is an efficient way to reduce stress, alleviate depression and accelerate rehabilitation in a variety of clinical settings, with no side-effects.
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the hormone cortisol are key players in regulating and mediating the physiological responses to stress. Stress induces hypothalamic responses, which result in the production of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol by the adrenal glands, located on top of the kidneys. These hormones are responsible for the "fight or flight" reaction and affect the metabolic, digestive, immunological and growth function of the human body, among others. Over-secretion of cortisol and other stress-related hormones is an important factor contributing to obesity and a variety of behavioral problems, such as insomnia, depression and memory impairment.
This vicious cycle of stress-related health problems can be significantly weakened with garden therapy, while improving the people's quality of life. Horticultural therapy involves gardening activities for therapeutic and rehabilitation purposes, and has been applied so far in a variety of patients. Agricultural and gardening activities are integrated as complementary therapeutic modalities in many private and public psychiatric clinics in USA. In an article published in the Journal Psychiatry Investigation in 2012, Detweiler and his colleagues report that simply wandering in a natural landscape help with the recovery of psychiatric patients, reduce pain, medication, improve attention and sleep quality and alleviate agitation, particularly in elderly demented patients. Groups of depressed adults also had substantial improvements with horticultural therapy.
A novel Norwegian study showed that therapeutic gardening improved all individual mental health parameters, increased social interactions in almost 40% of the patients and helped them form a strong team. These results persisted even three months after the end of the therapy. Experimental evidence shows that in patients with any level of compromised mental/brain functions, horticultural therapy mediates mental healing, recreation, social interaction, sensory stimulation, cognitive re-organization and training of sensory motor function. In a different clinical setting, Wichrowski and colleagues studied 59 cardiac rehabilitation inpatients, who participated in daily horticultural therapy activities. The participants had significantly reduced heart rate immediately after the therapeutic intervention and improved mood, in comparison with the 48 control subjects, who attended a patient education program instead.
Apparently you don't need to be sick in order to garden, but given the current hectic lifestyle, some gardening may actually help to relax. An interesting study published in 2011 in the Journal of Health Psychology, investigated the effect of either 30 minutes of gardening activities or reading in thirty healthy allotment gardeners (allocated randomly in two different groups), who were asked to complete a stressful task prior to engaging in their allocated activities. The results showed that the gardening group had consistently much lower cortisol levels and their positive mood was completely restored (after the stressful task) in comparison to the reading group. According to the authors, gardening elicits powerful neuroendocrine responses that relieve acute stress parameters in a very measurable way.
Wichrowski M, Whiteson J, Haas F, Mola A, Rey MJ. 2005. Effects of horticultural therapy on mood and heart rate in patients participating in an inpatient cardiopulmonary rehabilitation program. J Cardiopulm Rehabil. 25(5):270-4.
Detweiler MB, Sharma T, Detweiler JG, Murphy PF, Lane S, Carman J, Chudhary AS, Halling MH, Kim KY. 2012. What is the evidence to support the use of therapeutic gardens for the elderly? Psychiatry Investig. 9(2):100-10.
Söderback I, Söderström M, Schälander E. 2004. Horticultural therapy: the 'healing garden and gardening in rehabilitation measures at Danderyd Hospital Rehabilitation Clinic, Sweden. Pediatr Rehabil. 7(4):245-60.