A one-month period of indoor gardening increased skin bacterial diversity and was associated with higher levels of anti-inflammatory molecules in the blood, according to a collaborative study by the University of Helsinki, the Finnish Institute for Natural Resources, and the University of Tampere, published in Environment International. “A month of indoor urban gardening enhanced the diversity of bacteria on participants’ skin and correlated with elevated levels of anti-inflammatory cytokines in their blood. The study group used a soil rich in microbial diversity that mimicked forest soil,” explained Mika Saarenpää from the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Helsinki.

These findings are significant because urbanization has led to a rise in immune-mediated diseases, such as allergies, asthma, and autoimmune disorders, which come with substantial healthcare costs. “We live too ‘clean’ in cities,” Saarenpää said. “Urbanization reduces microbial exposure, alters the human microbiota, and increases the risk of immune-mediated diseases. This is the first time we’ve shown that a natural human activity can boost the microbiota diversity of healthy adults and aid in immune system regulation.” Increasing microbial exposure can be done easily and safely at home throughout the year. The investment in space and money is minimal: in the study, gardening was done in regular planters, and the plants—such as peas, beans, mustard, and lettuce—were store-bought. Changes were noticeable within a month, and many participants enjoyed gardening so much that they planned to continue and switch to outdoor gardening in the summer.

According to Saarenpää, microbe-mediated immunoregulation could potentially reduce the risk or symptoms of immune-mediated diseases. Enhancing health-promoting microbial exposure on a population level could lower healthcare costs related to these diseases and improve people’s quality of life. “We still don’t know how long the changes in skin microbiota and anti-inflammatory cytokines last,” Saarenpää noted, “but if gardening becomes a regular hobby, immune system regulation is likely to be sustained.” Saarenpää also emphasized the importance of exposing children to nature and microbes, as immune system development is more active in childhood. Introducing planters with microbe-rich soil in nurseries, schools, and hospitals, especially in densely populated urban areas, could be beneficial.

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