woman picking lettuce leaves in vegetable garden

Can Gardening Benefit Your Gut Health?

What has gardening got to do with your gut health? More than you might think. To mark the unveiling of the Bowel Research UK Microbiome Garden at this year's RHS Chelsea Flower Show, we asked Dietitian Laura Tilt how these two seemingly unrelated things are connected.

Next time you’re in a garden or park, take a close look at the soil. What do you see? A heap of dirt or a thriving ecosystem? If you're not seeing much beyond dirt, it’s time for a rethink. The soil under your feet is teeming with trillions of microbes, forming what is known as the soil microbiome. Much like your gut microbiome is vital for your health, this underground ecosystem is vital for soil health and the food that grows in it.

“Soil is where food begins”

A teaspoon of topsoil (the uppermost layer of soil) can contain up to 6 billion microbes. These tiny workers (mostly bacteria and fungi) carry out a wide range of jobs, decomposing plant waste, protecting plants from pests and disease, improving soil texture, and increasing nutrient delivery to plants. Just as a diverse gut microbiome is a marker of a healthy gut, the same is true for soil. Healthy soil contains a diverse range of helpful microbes which help sustain the growth of crops, and increase the soil’s resilience to environmental challenges.

Protecting and improving the diversity of the soil microbiome is essential to sustaining food production and nutritious food. Healthy soils = more crops, and improved nutrition of those crops. In short, your health (and gut health) is connected to the health of the soil.

Green fingers, healthy gut?

Humans have interacted with soil throughout history, through growing and foraging food, or living on farms. But today the majority of the world’s population lives in towns and cities, and very few of us grow our own food. As a result, we have less exposure to soil and environmental microbes which may be important for gut health. Studies show that people living in urban environments (like towns and cities) have less diverse microbiomes than those living in rural environments.

One activity that offers a way to reconnect with soil microbes is gardening. Research shows that adults with access to gardens containing shrubs and flowering plants have more beneficial microbes in their gut than those living in built up city areas with no access to a garden. Gardening families have higher gut microbial diversity than non-gardening families, even if only one member of the family gardens. This is because your gut microbiome is shaped by the people you live with.

In one Finnish study, researchers explored how gardening could impact the gut microbiome of a small group of healthy city dwelling adults. Over a period of two weeks, one half of the group was asked to rub their hands with a mix of soil and plant material three times a day before washing with water, whilst the other group acted as controls. Stool samples showed that the adults exposed to the soil had increased diversity in their microbiome diversity after the gardening intervention.

More research is needed to explore how soil microbes can influence our health, but the benefits of gardening extend beyond soil microbes. Spending time in nature and greenspace is a proven mood booster which can lower stress and help you feel more relaxed. Growing your own food can translate to physical and psychological health benefits too - sunlight exposure, fresh air and a sense of achievement and self-sufficiency is a heady combination.

Here are three simple ideas to get you closer to nature:

Plant a container

Container gardening (growing plants in containers) is perfect for beginners who want low-maintenance greenery. It’s also ideal if you have limited outdoor space, such as a balcony or small patio. You can repurpose pretty much any container to grow a plant as long as you create drainage holes at the bottom. Look around your house or local market for wooden boxes, oil cans, old tin baths, enamel pots you could upcycle, then choose a suitable plant according to the size of your container.

Grow salad or herbs

Even the most novice gardener can grow herbs in a sunny kitchen window; they’re easy to look after and don’t need much space. Try chives, parsley, mint or basil. If you have a balcony or a patio you can buy deeper pots and grow lettuce, radishes, tomatoes and spring onions. If growing your own is out of reach, see whether you could join up to help at a community garden.

Create a calming nature nook

Find a sunny corner of your garden or cosy window area that looks outdoors and create yourself a peaceful nature spot. Tidy up the space, add a few plants in pots and a seat. If you’re creating your nook indoors, add a few cushions and some potted plants for your desk and windowsill. Studies show that bringing nature indoors through houseplants can have a positive effect on mood and mental wellbeing.

Brown, M. D., Shinn, L. M., Reeser, G., Browning, M., Schwingel, A., Khan, N. A., & Holscher, H. D. (2022). Fecal and soil microbiota composition of gardening and non-gardening families. Scientific Reports, 12(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/

Parajuli, A., Hui, N., Puhakka, R., Oikarinen, S., Grönroos, M., Selonen, V. A. O., Siter, N., Kramna, L., Roslund, M. I., Vari, H. K., Nurminen, N., Honkanen, H., Hintikka, J., Sarkkinen, H., Romantschuk, M., Kauppi, M., Valve, R., Cinek, O., Laitinen, O. H., … Sinkkonen, A. (2020). Yard vegetation is associated with gut microbiota composition. Science of The Total Environment, 713, 136707. https://doi.org/

Roslund, M. I., Laitinen, O. H., & Sinkkonen, A. (2024). Scoping review on soil microbiome and gut health — Are soil microorganisms missing from the planetary health plate ? February, 1–18. https://doi.org

Mhuireach, G. Á., Van Den Wymelenberg, K. G., & Langellotto, G. A. (2023). Garden soil bacteria transiently colonize gardeners’ skin after direct soil contact. Urban Agriculture & Regional Food Systems, 8(1), e20035. https://doi.org/

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