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How plants promote better mental health and wellbeing

Farmer and maize crop - illustration

Research has shown that spending more time in nature has a beneficial impact on our mental health. In fact, research funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

The MARCH Network, one of UK Research and Innovation’s eight mental health networks, is investigating the role places such as parks and allotments have on mental health, and includes Nature Connectedness, a project at the University of Derby looking at our psychological links to nature.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs #healthyplantshealthy minds campaign is encouraging people to share photos of their house and garden plants on Instagram and Facebook, which have been shown to help reduce stress, improve mental health and concentration.

With COVID-19 restricting the movement of people, closing gyms, entertainment and socialising spaces, spending as much time in the garden, park or allotment is looking like one of the key ways to keep mentally healthy during this pandemic. We look at the three main ways plants positively affect our mental wellbeing.

Gardening

Since lockdown began, gardens have taken on a whole new purpose – as a space for physical activity and mindfulness. One of the largest studies to date on gardens and gardening, funded by Innovate UK and National Institute for Health Research, found that people who spent time in the garden report better physical and mental health levels than those who do not. The study showed the benefits of gardening were similar to the difference in health between the wealthiest and the poorest people in the country.

Professor Alistair Griffiths, Director of Science and Collections at the Royal Horticultural Society and co-author on the paper, said: “This work adds to the increasing body of scientific evidence on the health benefits of gardens and gardening. As the current COVID crisis has demonstrated, there’s an urgent need to include the provision of private gardens in the planning process to better support the UK’s preventative health agenda and the wellbeing of our nation.”

What about helping gardeners protect their precious spaces? A service with funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), predicts the arrival of insect pests, and is helping gardeners to protect their produce and reduce chemical pesticide use. Dr Daniel Kudenko from the University of York and Dr Paul Holloway, now at University College Cork, used geographical and temporal data from the Rothamsted Insect Survey and large-scale citizen science project The Big Bug Hunt to develop a predictive model of insect migrations. Using this model, the pest prediction service alerts users of predicted outbreaks, enabling them to implement biological control measures in advance.

Xylella fastidiosa has been described by the European Commission as “one of the most dangerous plant bacteria worldwide, causing a variety of diseases, with huge economic impact for agriculture, public gardens and the environment.” There is currently no cure for the disease which is known to infect more than 300 types of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. The bacterium is transmitted (vectored) by insects such as leafhoppers and froghoppers/spittlebugs that feed on the xylem, the plant tissue that transports water from roots to leaves in plants.

As part of the BRIGIT project, a consortium for enhancing UK surveillance and response to this devastating disease, the Spittlebug Survey is helping to better understand the distribution and ecology of these xylem-feeding insects so to then predict how the disease might spread if it reaches the UK.

Green neighbourhoods

Living in a greener neighbourhood has also been linked to better wellbeing, based on current data collected by Natural England’s Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment Survey, the world’s largest survey collecting data on people’s weekly contact with the natural world, which focused on parks and playing fields.

In response to COVID-19, Natural England has launched their #betterwithnature campaign to inspire more people to connect with nature safely during the pandemic, offering tips and activities such as planting seeds or sketching a flower.

A study in Scotland, funded by ESRC, showed that maintained recreational woodlands encourage more people outside. Figures indicated people were more than twice as likely to visit maintained woodlands more than twice a week.

Specially built parks or “pocket parks” have also shown to have a positive effect on the environment and building community spirit. An ESRC-funded project built a pocket park in Fenham in 2016, which increased the environmental value of the area with fruit trees to attract insects and bees.

Plants also significantly improve the air quality of an area or environment, which in turn impact our overall health, including mental health. The Global Centre for Clean Air Research at the University of Surrey, part-funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, has shown trees and hedges reduced pollution by diverting, diluting or capturing pollutants. They identified 12 traits for 61 tree species that have effective barriers against pollution, and typical traits include small leaves, high foliage and either evergreen or semi-evergreen varieties.

Plant nutrition

Plants, which make up 80% of our diet, are crucial for our health and wellbeing. Since the pandemic, we’ve already seen a 250% surge in seed and compost sales in the UK, with many embarking on the challenge of “grown your own” as much for the mind as for the belly.

The impact of plants on physical health has been well-documented, but research into mental health is slowly catching up. An ESRC-funded study looking at the relationship between fruit and vegetable consumption and wellbeing showed that mental well-being, in the short-term, improves and responds to both the amount and the number of times a person eats fruit and veg.

There is even new research looking into how we can extract the most nutrition from plant-based foods. Better nutrition is not only good for a healthy body, but also mental wellbeing.

The Quadram Institute, with funding from BBSRC, is looking at how plant-based food is broken down by the body. By doing this, they will be able to support the development of healthier food products. This will directly impact on people’s health, for example, an increase in protein and micronutrients in crops such as pulses will be available in regions where these nutritional deficiencies exist.

Last updated: 23 October 2020

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