By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC
This post originally published on June 9th, 2021 here at That Darn Amygdala. Since it has been a favorite post here, it has been updated with the most up-to-date research. Enjoy!
I absolutely love plants! They are all over my house, my office, my yard, and even in my car (true story: there is a baby tear’s plant in the cup holder currently). For me, gardening and my plants have always done something good for the soul. I decided maybe it was time to look into why plants have that kind of impact.
This post is all about the science of how plants improve our mental health. Let me tell you, there are tons of ways that live plants (and caring for them) improve our mental health. I don’t think I have been this excited for a post since I posted The Brain and Mental Health: The Breakdown (Literally and Figuratively) (okay, and every other post I put out here).
Plants in Your Diet
It is no secret plants do a body good. Science has shown us for years how certain plant-based foods release certain vitamins, minerals, amino acids, (neurotransmitters might I add), and proteins that keep us moving, strong, and alert. By eating our leafy greens, munching on our rainbow carrots, and dining on beets, we alter our chemical make-up and improve our chances of survival. When you think of it, that cob salad you eat totally is plant therapy.
Plants as Medicine
Science has also shown us how medicinal plants can be. Struggle with arthritis? Stinging nettle may be up your alley. Want plants to help cope with menstrual cramps? Red Raspberry leaves are where it’s at! Struggling with a headache? Chew on some willow bark for its pain-relieving value. These plants have been the groundwork for developing much needed medications, such as NSAIDs and opioids.
***If you are not familiar with these plants, don’t go and eat just anything! Research is key to help you identify the difference between good plants and toxic plants that could kill you***
Plants and Your Mental Health
When it comes to non-edible plants, they have an impact on our mental health as well. Science and studies have really started to look at the impact of greenery on that darn amygdala.
It isn’t a secret that plants release oxygen. But did you know that if you spend more time stuck indoors, without plants, you can become oxygen deprived? True story! Without the needed oxygen, our blood circulation slows down. Can you take a guess as to what that poor circulation could do? You got it! Without the nutrients traveling our bodies, we have a natural uptick in our stress response. This means we tend to be irritable, on the anxious side, and gives that darn amygdala all the time in the world to assume the world is going to come to an end.
Plants are a Good Distraction
House plants, such as the African Begonia, help our mental health by improving our memory and attention span. How do those plants do that? As we are working hard on tasks that require our attention, plants offer our brain the mini-break it craves. Believe it or not, our brains are not meant to stare at screens, participate in meetings, and write five million proposals in one day.
By having subtle distractions in our work environment (oh, lets say an arrowroot or a spider plant for example), our darn amygdala has something physical to distract it from the stressful scenarios it is coming up with. By the time the prefrontal cortex knows what it is going on, that darn amygdala has calmed down enough and is ready to get back on track. Since it calms down that darn amygdala, this means the hypothalamus and hippocampus have the opportunity to college other memories outside of stressful ones. One study even showed that having plants in your work space can decrease stress at work by 20%(University of Michigan, 2008)!
Plants and Positivity
The palm tree in your office looks beautiful and offers a distraction, but it doesn’t stop there. Another cool way that potted palm helps you in your day-to-day life is by increasing your levels of positivity. As we look at our beloved anthurium and tend to its needs, we release oxytocin into our brain. Now if we are caring for a plant and it starts to bloom (orchids and Christmas Cactus are great for this), we get an additional boost of dopamine and serotonin to reward our brain for putting TLC into something and accomplishing the goal of seeing these beauties bloom again and again.
Now, in the case of plants, you can never have enough of a good thing. The more house plants you surround yourself with, the greater their effect on your mental health. Keep being that crazy plant person! Hoard those snake plants baby! Buy yourself that beautiful aglaonema! Be the keeper of all things succulent! Of course, if you have so many plants that they wrap you up like a cocoon and start to digest you while you sleep, you may have gone too far (Just ask the cast of The Little Shoppe of Horrors).
Plants and Oxytocin
Speaking of hoarding, the gifting of a house plant can not only help you, but help the person you are gifting it to. As we gift gifts to others, it releases oxytocin and helps us feel not-so alone. In turn, the receiver of the plant also receives the gift of an oxytocin dump and the release of dopamine. That gift keeps on giving as our hippocampus remembers where that darling lucky bamboo came from. This allows the receiver to get a shot of oxytocin and dopamine each time they simply look at it.
Dirt’s Impact on Mental Health
Plants also have the ability to tend to our mental health through the dirt they are in. That’s right. Playing with plants outside has a major impact on our mental health. According to an older study done by Bristol University and The University College of London discovered that some of the bacteria in dirt can trigger a release of serotonin in the same way that anti-depressants (in particular, SSRI medications) release it into the brain (Paddock, 2007). One of the bacteria discovered, named mycobacterium vaccae, has been shown to boost the serotonin levels in the brain specifically in the parts that matter (the hippocampus and hypothalamus). This particular bacteria travels through our skin into our bloodstream. Not only does this impact that serotonin, but this improves our natural immune system and decreases our chances of getting sick. If this doesn’t make you want to go out and get dirt under your nails?
Go-To House Plants
Now there are some house plants that release more oxygen and feel-good vibes than others. This is based on the amount of oxygen they release into the air, and the ease of their care.
Ranking number one is the snake plant. Tall, colorful, and loves any sort of light, snake plants produce the most oxygen (and are hard to kill).
Next on the list is the infamous spider plant. The come in multiple colors and do great in any sunlight. These plants look amazing in a windowsill, hanging in a macramé plant hanger, or sitting in a collection of other plants on a shelf. They are also very forgiving if you forget to water it. Plus, they are easy to start new plants off of (meaning more plants to make your brain happy!).
One of my favorites is a philodendron. These big, leafy green plants tend to drape over their planters, which is beautiful. They also love low-light conditions (or the unnatural light conditions in an office). Philodendrons are also super easy to grow and are super forgiving if you forget to water them for a couple of weeks.
Arrowroot vines are another simple, yet powerful, plant to grow. Shaped like an arrowhead, these plants shoot out vines that you can have grow up a wall or hang down. These guys also like those low light conditions and are super easy to cut and create new plants from. yet another plant that is super easy to start growing if you are a newbie.
Dieffenbachia is a great plant if you are looking to add a tropical feel, without the tropical care. These guys are amazing at releasing oxygen into the air and enjoy any kind of light. They do need a bit more regular watering, but it a great way to release your oxytocin in caring for it.
These are just some of the pants (not an inclusive list) of easy growing, easy going plants to start off your collection. These also have shown they help the most with releasing oxygen (and other feel good neurotransmitters) to maximize the benefits to your mental health, all while starting simple.
** If you have pets that live with you, make sure that you do your research before buying and keeping plants. Some of the plants that I just listed are toxic to pets (cats especially) and care should be taken that they are not ingested. **
Coping skill alert!
Did you know taking care of your plants goes along the line of a great CBT skill we have talked about? Plant management in your home follows the steps of behavioral activation and SMART goals! This means by having plants, you can attend to their needs, which improves your motivation to attend to your own. Don’t believe me? Reread my post Depression and All That Jazz to learn more about behavioral activation and see what I mean.
Plants and gardening are some of my favorite (and fun) ways to help give my mental health a boost. When it comes to my clients, I often talk about the benefits of keeping up your favorite house plant or creating an outdoor garden space. I want to thank you for coming along and learning about why gardening is one of my favorite ways to be active, release those feel good neurotransmitters, and practice some good ol’ fashion behavioral activation.
- Cooper, Katie (2020). Plant Therapy: How and indoor green oasis can improve your mental and emotional wellbeing. Published by Hardie Grant Books
- Kwik Learning (2021). HERE’S HOW INDOOR PLANTS HELP YOUR BRAIN HEALTH. Retrieved from Here’s How Indoor Plants Help Your Brain Health – Kwik Learning
- Michigan News (2009). Going outside—even in the cold—improves memory, attention. Retrieved from Going outside—even in the cold—improves memory, attention | University of Michigan News (umich.edu)
- Neveln, Viveka (2021). 23 of the Easiest Houseplants You Can Grow. Retrieved from 23 Easy Houseplants to Grow | Better Homes & Gardens (bhg.com)
- Paddock (2007). Soil Bacteria Work In Similar Way To Antidepressants. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/66840#1