Natural Healing

Serotonin-boosting bacteria perfect pain buster

By Sari Huhtala

I hobbled into my garden one day in mid July, flinching with each step, but I was determined to tackle the weeds, despite the stress fracture in my fibula. I’d been trapped in this cycle of pain for six weeks, but something incredible happened that day after digging my bare hands in the dirt, and I strolled out of the garden pain free.

What I realized was that my body had been trapped in a fight-or-flight stress response due to the injury. Every activity I engaged in that required any use of my lower leg caused shooting pain, which in turned caused stress.

At one point the pain had become so intense I dreaded driving a car because the burning was too much to bear after a few minutes of pushing the gas pedal, and I would have to pull over and rest my leg. But that pain came to an end when my sympathetic nervous system, my fight or flight system, stopped constantly firing. My nervous system had become stuck in a constant state of reacting to the pain, thus unconsciously keeping me trapped in a state of stress.

My body could not find a healing pathway while in stress mode, and digging my bare hands in the dirt for two hours booted up my parasympathetic nervous system, my “rest and digest” system, allowing healing to occur.

There is much truth to the idea of a happy gardener. Digging up dirt with bare hands stirs up mycobacterium in the soil that actually increases levels of the happy hormone serotonin, to the point where researchers have found its effects to parallel that of anti-depressants. A study, which appeared in the journal Neuroscience, found that when digging up dirt, gardeners inhale the mycobacterium, and have topical contact with it, as well as get it into their bloodstream through cuts and other pathways. The bacterium causes cytokine levels to increase, triggering the release of serotonin, with no adverse effects.

I have literally been walking pain-free on my leg since the day I strolled out of the garden. The fibula is still healing, and I have some restrictions, like deep squats, and I don’t plan on slipping on my tap shoes for a while, but at least I can walk without pain.

I know it may seem far-fetched, but there is plenty of science behind this sort of healing response, and it’s well worth paying attention to if chronic pain, or even acute pain, is a concern.

Chronic pain can, and will, activate the sympathetic nervous system, leaving one in a constant state of stress, according to A 2012 article in the Journal of Pain and Palliative Care Pharmacotherapy.

Whether it’s digging your hands in dirt, trying an energy therapy like reiki, meditation, or doing any number of happy-hormone boosters, bringing the nervous system back into a state of balance is essential for healing and wellness on all levels of health.  

The irony in all of this is my stress fracture occurred as a result of spending over 40 hours a week for three weeks steady in a deep yoga squat, reaching and pulling, working every inch of my 1,300-square-foot garden space by hand. Although every year I tackle my gardens in the same way, without incidence, this year was different. I could blame it on aging, but that’s not why the injury occurred. The difference this year was that in early spring my daily rituals of yoga, exercise and meditative practices had dwindled to only three times a week – not enough to keep my body strong enough and flexible enough to prevent injury.

Sari Huhtala is the creator, publisher and editor of Alive and Fit Magazine. She has over 25 years experience in journalism, and is a mother of 3 adult children. She has spent over 20 years navigating a healthy path for her family, one health hack at a time, as a single mom feeding her kids healthy on a shoestring budget. She has over 15 years experience as a certified fitness specialist and personal trainer and over 10 years as a reiki practitioner. She has also studied shamanism, and holds wildcrafting foraging workshops.

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