Healing depression naturally through gardening

With depression becoming more common in Zimbabwe with all the everyday stresses we endure, we should all be looking into making small lifestyle changes to avoid this dreaded monster. In the past decade, there has been some extensive research done on the benefits of gardening, which can help lift our moods.

Before I rattle on about the benefits, let me clarify what I mean by gardening: I am talking about you getting out into the garden and getting your hands dirty, not your gardener or partner.


Having being brought up in a sporty country, most of us don’t consider gardening as exercise; well, if you are physically active in the garden for over 150 minutes a week, you are getting your fair share of weekly exercise recommended by most doctors to heal depression, or even prevent it. Dr. Alan Cohen, a British doctor with a special interest in mental health states, “When people get depressed or anxious, they often feel they’re not in control of their lives. Exercise gives them back control of their bodies and this is often the first step to feeling in control of other events.”

Giving us a purpose

Doctors often recommend people suffering from depression to get a pet, as this can help with feeling worthwhile and purposeful. Gardening entails nurturing small plants or seeds into larger plants and flowers. There is an element of care giving and being responsible for the growth and blossoming of life. This activity, which is similar to caring for a pet, helps to combat depression. Often being able to sustain a healthy plant is the first step towards creating confidence in being able to keep a pet.

Getting outdoors

We all enjoy getting outdoors in Zimbabwe and enjoying the natural beauty of our country. Being outdoors in more natural surroundings can help lift our mood, as it brings a sense of simplicity and tranquillity, which is therapeutic for many people, and in contrast to many urban workplaces. Not only is gardening a great way of enjoying the beauty and getting outdoors, but it is also a chance to be in the sun. Getting safe sun exposure allows your body to produce vitamin D, which is a great mood enhancer.

Get your hands dirty

Did you know that there’s a natural antidepressant in soil? Scientists have revealed that getting your hands dirty in the garden can increase your serotonin levels due to contact, either by a small cut on your hands or by breathing it in, with a specific soil bacterium, Mycobacterium vaccae. This bacterium triggers the release of serotonin in our brain, a happy chemical and a natural anti-depressant, according to research; it also strengthens the immune system, and a lack of serotonin in the brain can cause depression.

Harvest a high

Another interesting bit of research relates to the release of the dopamine high in the brain when we harvest products from the garden. Researchers believe that this has stemmed from over nearly 200,000 years of hunter gathering; when food was found (gathered or hunted), a flush of dopamine released in the reward centre of brain triggered a state of bliss or mild euphoria. The dopamine release can be triggered by sight (seeing a fruit or berry) and smell as well as by the action of actually harvesting fruit. Shopaholics also get this high; I would definitely say gardening is a cheaper and more productive way of getting it!

Eating healthily

Doctors always recommend a healthy diet if you are suffering from depression, and there is no better place than your backyard to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables. This will also bring your shopping bills down, another reason to smile.

A message from Dr. O on dealing with depression naturally

The World Health Organization has predicted that by 2030, more people will be affected by depression than any other health problem. In Zimbabwe, it is already relatively common; studies have shown that 25% of people attending primary care are depressed.

Depression is a real illness that affects the brain. Those that suffer with depression know that it’s not imaginary or ‘all in your head’. It’s more than just feeling blue; it is a serious illness caused by changes in brain chemistry. It is multi-factorial and can be caused by:

  • Genetics and/or changes in hormone levels
  • Stress
  • Grief
  • Certain medical conditions, or Medicines.

Any of these factors alone or in combination can precipitate changes in brain chemistry and thus lead to depression.


How do you know if you or a loved one is depressed? Depression often affects emotions, thoughts, behaviours and overall physical health. Here is a checklist of common symptoms:


  • Sadness
  • Guilt
  • Moodiness
  • Hopelessness
  • Angry outbursts
  • Loss of interest in family, favourite activities and friends


  • Difficulty making decisions, concentrating, remembering
  • Thoughts of self-harm
  • Delusions and/or hallucinations Behaviours
  • Withdrawing from people
  • Substance abuse
  • Missing deadlines, appointments, work, school, and other commitments
  • Attempts at self-harm

Physical problems

  • Tiredness, lack of energy
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Change in appetite
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Changes in sleep pattern
  • Sexual problems

Ticking five or more of the above symptoms indicates a problem with depression

How to treat depression

The majority of depressive symptoms can be treated without medication; the following are suggestions for treating depression naturally:

  1. Go for a medical check-up and analysis of bloods to get your hormones balanced. If your thyroid, pancreatic, adrenal or sex hormones are out of whack, your mood can get imbalanced.
  2. Exercise as it releases endorphins, feel good hormones
  3. Watch your diet by eating less sugar, and never skip a meal. This will stabilize blood sugars and stop mood swings. Increase your brain’s serotonin levels by eating foods that boost them naturally, such as, foods high in omega-3 fatty acids (such as wild salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, and anchovies, which are even higher in omega-3 fatty acids than other fish), healthy fats like coconut oil and eat a high protein diet, especially proteins high in tryptophan. Avoid caffeine, which reduces serotonin levels. If you need an energy boost, supplement with l-tyrosine (500 -1000 mg).
  4. Expose yourself to sunlight, which can boost mood and increase vitamin D levels. Better still take at least 1000iu vitamin D to ensure adequate levels.
  5. Try mood-enhancing supplements:
  • 5-htp /tryptophan – 50-300 mg up to three times a day – start at 50mg in the morning. Converts directly into serotonin.
  • L-theanine 100-600mg daily. Reduce if you feel sleepy. Found in Green tea.
  • Fish oil (dha/epa) 1-3 g a day with food.
  • St. John’s wort 300mg three times a day. If you don’t feel better within a week, slowly increase your dose to a max of 600mg three times a day. Don’t take if you are on other medications.
  • Take good quality multivitamins as studies have proved that b12 and folate deficiencies can your depress mood.
  1. Talk it out with a therapist, psychiatrist, or life coach and express how you feel.
  2. Stress management techniques and treatments: meditation, yoga, breathing. The body’s ability to withstand stress improves with the mastery of a few basic stress management relaxation techniques that calm and regularize the body’s natural rhythms.
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