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All the gardeners I know, including myself, feel better when we are working in the garden. Some people say it is a meditative experience – a way to separate yourself from the troubles of the everyday.

I love getting my hands into the soil. I rarely wear gloves because I like the feel of the soil.

Recent research has given some scientific basis for that good feeling we get in working the soil. Contained in soil is Mycobacterium vaccae, a nonpathogenic species of bacteria. It occurs naturally. Researchers have been studying how killed Mycobacterium vaccae vaccine might be used as immunotherapy for allergic asthma, cancer, leprosy, psoriasis, dermatitis, eczema, tuberculosis, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis – and depression.

That last area of research is what brings me to happy soil. It has recently been hypothesized that exposure to Mycobacterium vaccae may result in an antidepressant effect, because it stimulates the generation of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain. There may be some natural Prozac in that dirt.

Lack of serotonin is linked to depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar problems. Many antidepressant drugs are ones that trigger the production of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain.

Now, don’t go out in the backyard and start eating dirt. Working the soil means we make contact with the microbes through the skin and also by breathing some in as we stir up the soil.

The research shows that these microbes cause cytokine levels to rise and that results in the production of higher levels of serotonin. In the studies, the bacterium was tested both by injection and ingestion – but that was on rats. The natural antidepressant effect can be felt for up to 3 weeks.

Maybe those pigs and other animals rolling in the dirt were doing more than keeping cool and keeping off insects.



Vinegar is pretty amazing. This liquid consisting mainly of acetic acid (CH3CO2H) and water is produced through the fermentation of ethanol by acetic acid bacteria.

Usually, we use it as a cooking ingredient, but historically it had industrial, medical, and domestic uses. We still use it in some of those ways today.

For example, some household uses of vinegar:
A vinegar application will loosen a rusted or corroded bolt. If you pour half a cup of baking soda down a clogged drain and add 4 ouncesof vinegar and cover the drain for a minute, it will clear the drain in a “green” fashion. Two tablespoons of vinegar and 2 tablespoons of maple syrup to a quart of water will aid in keeping cut flowers longer. For streak-free window washing, use a: ½ cup of ammonia and 3 tablespoons of vinegar added to each quart of warm water is excellent for washing windows without leaving film or streaks. Using newspaper to do the wiping also helps.

It was an accidental discovery in ancient times that grape juice, left undisturbed, turns into wine. That was good. But wine, left undisturbed, eventually turns into vinegar. Not so good – until uses of vinegar were discovered.

We don’t have written records, but legend has it that the Sumerians of ancient Babylonia used vinegar as a cleaning agent. Probably accidentally, they discovered that vinegar slows or stops the action of bacteria that spoils food so they used it as a preservative. Caesar’s armies used vinegar as a beverage and as a condiment. Cleopatra supposedly made a bet that she could consume a fortune in a single meal. She then used vinegar to dissolve some precious pearls. It is said that Helen of Troy bathed in vinegar to relax.

Of course, many of these claims are usually categorized as legend, home remedies, natural healing or old wives’ tales. I don’t know if many nutritionists or physicians would give their stamp of approval to vinegar as a treatment, but scientists and researchers have found a number of vinegar uses to be legitimate.

Vinegar became one of our first medicines around 400 BC. Hippocrates, Greek physician, writer and the father of medicine, extolled vinegar’s therapeutic qualities. He prescribed drinking vinegar to his patients for many ailments.

It’s probably not dangerous to try some treatments. For example, for athletes foot, you can try using vinegar for a week. Same thing with trying it for chapped sore hands or a fungus condition on hands or other parts of the body. And some people recommend it for treating dandruff.

Vinegar shows up a number of times in the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments where it is a beverage (probably in a diluted and sweetened form). Jesus was given vinegar just before he was crucified which seemed to me as a child as a punishment, but it can be viewed as a drink. Biblical references to vinegar show up as as a condiment to dip bread and as a remedy for infections and wounds.

I still see articles regularly on using vinegar to relax, promote deep sleep, get relief from insomnia, rheumatism, arthritis, bone pain, stress, and even heart ailments.

One of the ways you’ll find vinegar consumed is mixed with apple cider and perhaps honey. You can adjust the amount of vinegar and honey for comfort and taste, but a recipe found online in many places is:
250 ml (8 oz) Water – warm enough to melt honey
1 to 2 teaspoons Apple Cider Vinegar (Organic usually recommended)
1 to 2 teaspoons honey (Of course, honey has its own supposed healing properties, including support for heart and
lungs, relief from allergies and to build immunity.

When apple cider and honey combine, the chemical formula of each changes. If you have concern about the acid content of apple cider vinegar or the sugar content of honey, the two working together may not produce negative results.

As a child, my mother used a cloth soaked in vinegar on my forehead as a headache cure. (I hated the smell.) She also used 2 teaspoons of vinegar in a glass of water for gas, indigestion, or diarrhea. The one that seemed counter-intuitive to me was using this “acid” for “heartburn” (acid reflux). Two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar with a 1/4 teaspoon of sodium bicarbonate (Baking Soda) in an 8 ounce glass of water. The science of that is to create a drink with the right pH. Solutions with a pH less than 7 are said to be acidic and solutions with a pH greater than 7 are basic or alkaline.

Legend has it that in France during the Black Plague, four thieves were able to rob houses of plague victims without being infected themselves. When they were captured, the judge offered them freedom if they revealed how they managed to stay healthy. They claimed that a medicine woman sold them a potion made of garlic soaked in vinegar (soured red wine) and ever since then variants have been made under the name “Four Thieves Vinegar.” Don’t expect to find it at your local drugstore, but it is a staple of New Orleans hoodoo practices.

Have you ever thought about why we feel so good walking in the woods, on a beach, or near a river, breathing fresh air in the mountains, or just breathing the the air after a rain shower?

The air around us is filled with electrically charged particles. Positively or negatively charged, they are called ions. Both positive and negative ions occur naturally in the air. However, the environment we live in today has far more sources of positive ions than in the past, creating an electrical imbalance in the air and our bodies. They are also called free radicals.

Free radicals are highly reactive, imbalanced molecules that are the byproducts of normal metabolism. They are associated with the degenerative aging process. Free radicals steal electrons from healthy cells to neutralize their own charge, and thereby cause cellular damage.

Free radicals (the positive ions) are produced by the discharge of voltage in high-voltage networks, heating and cooling systems, TVs, radios, transmitters, radar systems, computers, exhausts, cigarette fumes, smog, radiation and many harmful chemicals and toxins.

Water generates negative ions. Despite the connotation of the word “negative,” negative ions are the good ones for us.

It has been discovered that the dispersion of water from waterfalls, waves, or even lightning and water evaporation from plants, create  hydrogen ions by splitting water molecules. The negative electrons join up with other free positive electrons in the air neutralizing their electrical charge.

The breaking of the surface tension of water (waves, waterfalls or evaporation)  releases negative hydrogen ions and their ability to stick to different free radicals is very beneficial to our health.

Negative ions of hydrogen are more concentrated in fresh air. Water being sprayed and dispersed releases hydrogen negative ions which purify the air, kills bacteria, and increases our energy level. That after-rain aroma in the air after a thunderstorm on a sunny day is a good example. When it occurs in the presence of the sun, the effect is increased.

Negative-ion treatments are given to patients for bronchial conditions.

Negative ions have also been used to treat depression, which is our nation’s most prevalent mental health problem. Supposedly, about 15 million Americans spend about $3 billion a year on drugs to fight depression.

Most medications target either serotonin or norepinephrine (the brain chemicals which are neurotransmitters).

Low serotonin levels are believed to cause many cases of mild to moderate depression and symptoms of anxiety, apathy, fear,  insomnia and fatigue. High levels of negative hydrogen ions in the air were discovered to increase serotonin levels in the bloodstream.

A closed room with several people will have a decreased level of negatively ionized air. That may be a large part of the “sick building syndrome.” Homes and workplaces are built much more air tight with less fresh air and heating and air conditioning systems cause friction which depletes the negative ions.

Naturally occurring  negative ions can have health benefits. Claims are made for them enhancing the immune system, increasing alertness, productivity and concentration. There are claims that you can get relief from sinus, migraine headaches, allergies, and asthma attacks by increasing lung capacity.

Some tests have shown that negative ions can stabilize alpha rhythms in the human brain. Alpha waves usually occur when we are awake and relaxed.

If you feel sick, tired or depressed and wanted to try negative ions as a “therapy,” what could you do?

It’s not my place to be a health expert, but I do my research, and I pass it along. Here are some suggestions.

Try to avoid spaces with no fresh air – especially where you can’t even open a window. Even standing in your shower with the window open and fresh air can be invigorating. You have felt that, haven’t you?

Some people would recommend an indoor waterfall or a salt lamp for closed spaces.

An air ionizer (or negative ion generator) is a device that uses a high voltage charge to ionize air molecules. Most commercial air purifiers are designed to generate negative ions. Air ionizers are often used in air purifiers. Airborne particles are attracted to the electrode in an effect similar to static electricity. These ions are de-ionized by seeking earthed conductors, such as walls and ceilings.

The computer notebook producer ASUS even introduced air ionizers in their computers.

But, pretty obviously, the best thing to do is to find spaces in nature where the moving water is creating those ions. Get to a beach, waterfall, or river. Get into the sunlight.

“…I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.” – from the opening of Moby Dick

It’s an herb. It’s much sweeter than sugar. It’s almost calorie-free. It does not cause the after-eating spike in blood sugar that aggravates diabetes.

Wait. There’s more.

It’s  actually good for you.

It reduces blood sugar and blood pressure, and boosts immune function. It’s safer than other artificial sweeteners.

And you can  grow it yourself. (see below)

It’s stevia (Stevia rebaudiana).

Stevia had to go through a long U.S. regulatory review, but you can find it now in products.

I have a gardener’s interest in herbs and  natural healing. As with many herbs, Americans are late to the game in using stevia. It is actually native to Paraguay and Brazil. There, the Guarani Indians called it kaa-he-e, meaning sweet herb, or honey leaf.

stevia-packsPart of the delay in getting approval in the U.S. to use stevia as a food additive was a complaint to FDA that tried to link it to cancer and genetic mutations. Those charges turned out to be  false, and some suspect that the whole thing was a plot (conspiracy theorists enter here) to protect the lucrative, existing artificial sweeteners (Sweet ‘N Low (saccharine), NutraSweet (aspartame) and Sunette (acesulfame K).

It was banned until 1994, though you could buy it as a “supplement” in health food stores.

Last year, the FDA  ruling was reversed and 2 stevia sweeteners have been approved as food additives (SweetLeaf and Truvia).

Beyond using it as a sweetener, studies show that it has other natural healing effects. According to Mother Earth News:

1. Researchers in Taiwan gave 106 people with high blood pressure, ages 28 to 75, either a placebo or stevia extract (250 milligrams three times a day). After three months, blood pressure in the stevia group dropped significantly, with no side effects.

2. Other Taiwan scientists gave 168 adults with high blood pressure, average age 52, either a placebo or stevioside (500 milligrams three times a day). After one week, the stevia group showed lower blood pressure, and it remained low for the two years the study lasted.

3. Danish researchers gave a dozen type-2 diabetics a test meal plus a placebo or stevioside (1 gram). Thirty minutes later, the stevioside group had significantly lower blood sugar. The researchers said stevia may be “advantageous in the treatment of type-2 diabetes.”

4.  Indian researchers have discovered that stevia is rich in antioxidants, which means that it should help prevent the nation’s three top killers: heart disease, cancer and stroke. Indeed, a Chinese animal study shows that a compound in stevia, isosteviol, helps prevent brain damage from stroke.

5. An Indian animal study shows that stevia boosts immune function, particularly the ability of white blood cells to devour invading germs.

Stevia-seedlingsAmerican gardeners can grow stevia. Down South it would be treated as perennial that would need to be replaced every few years, and in other parts of the country it’s treated as an annual that would be planted in the spring after the last frost as with many vegetables and flowers.

There are amazingly 280 species of stevia that grow throughout North and South America. But only Stevia rebaudiana, is sweet.

Most people buy plants because he seeds are difficult to germinate for a home gardener.  They look similar to mints. Space them a foot apart, mulch, water once or twice a week and treat them as you would most of your vegetables. It can also be gown in containers.

The plant grows to 3 feet. You harvest the leaves as flowering begins around in midsummer to late fall when the sweetness peaks.  The leaves right off the plant are 15 times sweeter than table sugar. You can also dry and powder the one inch leaves and use them as you would use sugar.

A muffin and cookie recipe using stevia

Stevia seeds

Stevia Rebaudiana : Natures Sweet Secret

The Green Pharmacy: New Discoveries in Herbal Remedies for Common Diseases and Conditions from the World’s Foremost Authority on Healing Herbs

Some years ago I went down the therapy and medications path to combat depression. It was a frustrating process. I thought the medications did help, but they were not a solution. Since then I have looked into natural supplements that supposedly help combat stress, anxiety and depression.  There are five that I have tried that seem to have some positive effects in studies. Certainly, this is not a medical blog and I don’t know any more than what I have read, researched and observed with myself.  Those 5 are St. John’s wort, ginkgo, kava, tyrosine and SAM-e.

St. John’s wort is an herb of the genus Hypericum. It is named for John the Baptist because traditionally the herb was supposed to be collected on St. John’s Eve (June 23).

It has been used widely and studied more outside the United States and shown to improve mild to moderate depression. I have found it to be effective. But, if I had a major bout of depresssion, I would not expect it to lift me from it. It seems that we still are not sure of how St John’s wort works. Of course, that is also true of any number of commercial drugs used for depression. It seems that it probably acts as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor [SSRI], which would make it similar to Prozac.

One general warning for any of these natural supplements is not to mix them with other antidepressants. I always tell my doctor what supplements I am currently taking, and I stop them two weeks before I have blood work done so that they don’t throw off any tests. St. John’s wort is listed as causing sun sensitivity and it may interfere with anesthetics. After using it successfully for a number of years, I became concerned when I read that though it rarely causes sun sensitivity (photosensitivity) which would make you more susceptible to sunburns, there was secondary concern. Some recent studies concluded that it reacts with visible and ultraviolet light to produce free radicals. Those are molecules that can damage cells and react with vital proteins in the eye which, if damaged, precipitate out causing cataracts. Natural supplements have side effects just as any other medication.

Another popular supplement is ginkgo. This ornamental tree native to eastern China, is now grown in many countries worldwide, including the United States. Ginkgo’s earliest known medicinal use dates back to 2800 B.C., when members of the royal court were reportedly instructed to eat the leaves to combat senility.

Today it is suggested as a way to relieve mild depression.  It increases blood flow to the brain because it acts as a blood thinner and it also increases the amount of oxygen that can be transported in the blood. It is also considered to be an antioxidant.

Because it is a blood thinner, if you have hypertension, a history of stroke or are on prescription blood thinners like Coumadin, you need to be careful with ginkgo.  If you are having a dental procedure or a surgery, you also would want to avoid adding gingko.

Kava is a bit different.  It inhibits the enzyme that is involved in producing anxiety. That makes it similar to Valium and Halcyon. Anxiety is not depression, though they can be linked. I often see it advertised as a sleep aid. (So, warnings will say to avoid taking it if driving and similar situations.)

Like the others, this supplement has a long history of use. Captain James Cook was the first Westerner to encounter the herb, on a voyage to the Pacific Islands in 1768.

Someone told me that it had been “banned” from sale because it could cause in extremely high doses, ataxia and paralysis, and could be addictive. It is sold in many health food and vitamin stores, so I don’t know about any ban. You will find warnings about daily use or using it in higher dosages – which is good common sense for ANY type of  medicine.

The oddly-named SAM-e is actually S-adenosylmethionine, which is a chemical compound formed from the amino acid methionine and present in protein-rich foods, as well as in our bodies and brains.

Low levels of SAM-e in the body are associated with depression, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis and liver disorders. So,  SAM-e has been used (again, more so outside the U.S.) to treat depression and also arthritis pain. It was approved as an over-the-counter dietary supplement here only recently. I tried it for a short time and did not find any effect. It costs much more than St. John’s wort.

Tyrosine is one 20 amino acids that are the building blocks of all bodily proteins. You find it in dairy products and meats like chicken and turkey. It is a key amino acids for proper brain functioning. Because it is essential in the production of three neurotransmitters –  dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine (adrenaline) – it has been used as a  “stress buster. ”  Tyrosine can be depleted during periods of stress. The body cannot dopamine or norepinephrine without tyrosine.

Studies were done by the military during repetitive stress situations to see if it could prevent “fatigue depression” that occurs when someone is so exhaused that they become depressed and just want to give up.

There is plenty of information on all of these supplements online – maybe too much.

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