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Why Gardening May Help You Sleep Better

Grandmother and granddaughter in summer enjoy harvesting vegetables from home organic vegetable garden.
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The sheer number of juicy tomatoes you can grow in a backyard garden is reason enough to pick up a trowel. But the benefits of gardening extend far beyond your harvest — believe it or not, it can work wonders for your sleep as well.

Between the exercise of tending to plants, the stress relief of spending time in a green space and the sun exposure you can get on a daily basis, puttering around the garden might be one of the best activities you can do for better slumber this summer — even if you don’t have the greenest thumb on the block.

Here’s the dirt on the ways gardening can improve your sleep, according to science.

Sunlight Supports Your Circadian Rhythm

Sunlight isn’t only important to our plants, it also plays a big role in regulating our circadian rhythms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you can feel more alert during the day and fall asleep more easily at night if you get sunlight within an hour of waking up in the morning. That also happens to be the best time of day to water your garden, so it’s well worth getting out into your garden bright and early.

“Having exposure to natural light can help immensely with keeping your body clock on track,” says Dr. Stefanie N. Howell, senior neurologist at the Centre for Neuro Skills, who has researched sleep-wake disturbances and served as a reviewer for the Journal of Sleep Research.

There’s no need to toil away for hours on end to reap the benefits of light exposure. Spending just 30 minutes at 1,000 lux (the approximate brightness of an overcast day) can be enough to jump-start the circadian process, per Penn Medicine.

Gardening Can Make You More Tired at Bedtime

Gardening is a full-body workout that can almost immediately improve your sleep. All that digging, weeding and pruning can burn even more calories than a leisurely bike ride, which is why light yardwork ranks on the CDC’s list of moderate physical activities.

“Gardening is hard work, and you’re exhausted by the time you’re done,” says Howell. “That helps you fall asleep faster in the evening, because your body is actually fatigued.”

Not only does the exercise you get from gardening help decrease the time it takes you to drift off, it can also continue to enhance your sleep throughout the night. Research shows that moderate exercise like gardening can improve sleep quality and increase sleep duration.

“We know that physical activity increases the chemicals in the body that facilitate healthy, deep sleep,” says Dr. Chris Winter, sleep neurologist, Mattress Firm Sleep Advisor and author of “The Rested Child” and “The Sleep Solution.”

Spending Time in Nature May Boost Sleep Quality

Another way gardening can benefit sleep is by offering you regular access to nature. A 2020 systematic review showed at least 11 of the studies evaluated found that exposure to green space was linked with an improvement in sleep duration and quality. Those findings echo the results of a 2015 study on more than 255,000 U.S. adults, which showed that access to nature reduces the chances of reporting insufficient sleep.

Part of the connection between better sleep and green spaces might have to do with exercise. We already know that gardening can make you work up a sweat, just like taking a hike in the forest or playing with your kids in the park.

But researchers behind a 2018 study note that an increase in physical activity is far from the only explanation for the benefits of gardens and other green spaces on slumber. They say that green spaces produce a variety of effects, such as mental health benefits, improved social cohesion and lower levels of noise pollution, that can interact in complex ways to promote better sleep, although more research is needed.

Anecdotally, Winter has noticed that camping, hiking and being out in green spaces works wonders on his sleep.

“It might be the placebo effect, but hearing that green noise in the background and breathing in the oxygen from all the trees work for me,” he shares. “There’s nothing about gardens and green spaces that would be negative to your sleep, and they likely have a lot more positives than we’re even aware of.”

Taking Care of Plants Can Decrease Stress

Stress keeping you up at night? Gardening is a known stress-buster that can ultimately help you feel calm when it’s time to hit the hay.

“Outside of my failures trying to grow cilantro, there’s nothing stressful about gardening,” jokes Winter. “It gives your mind a simple, achievable task that allows you to disconnect from things that cause you stress.”

In fact, gardening seems to be able to relieve stress better than some other relaxing activities, such as reading. A 2010 study looked at what happened when people spent 30 minutes reading or gardening after performing a stressful task. While both groups experienced a reduction in the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, the effect was much greater among the gardeners than the readers. What’s more, the gardeners had a complete restoration of positive mood, whereas the readers experienced a decline in mood.

This could be due to the benefits of seeing something grow or of dedicating your full attention and all senses to the task. “Gardening can reduce negative thoughts and help you focus on the immediate details of something else, rather than your own headspace of things you’re stressed out about,” says Howell.

Evidence that gardening can relieve acute stress was also found in a survey conducted in the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the 1,449 respondents, 87% said that “relaxation and stress release” was one of the most important benefits of gardening at that time. Plus, a similar study from the pandemic found that people who gardened frequently had better self-rated sleep quality, underlining the complex connection between caring for plants, stress reduction and quality zzz’s.

“Being around plants can relieve stress, improve mood and promote that feeling of calm. That's really going to impact sleep,” said Howell.

You Can Grow Sleep-Inducing Plants

What you choose to grow may supercharge your garden’s ability to help you sleep well at night. Lavender, for example, has been shown to alleviate restlessness and other sleep problems. Likewise, chamomile seems to have a calming effect that can help people fall into a deep sleep more quickly. Winter grows chamomile that he enjoys grinding for evening teas.

Cultivating sleep-inducing plants at home makes them easy to incorporate into your sleep routine, giving your body clues about when it’s time to wind down at night.

With botanicals, you can create a space that’s very familiar to all your senses when you sleep, even when you’re away from home,” notes Winter. “You can make a lavender spray or sachet to make the bedsheets and pillow at your hotel room smell the same way they do at home, or pack the chamomile tea you always drink at home to make it feel more like you’re in your own bed.”

Growing lots of edible plants — even those not typically used at bedtime — may also have a positive effect on your sleep. Research has shown that increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables can improve symptoms of insomnia. If your garden is bursting with ripe tomatoes and leafy greens, you might find yourself chowing down on more veggies than usual and sleeping better for it.

“There’s definitely a gut-brain connection,” said Howell. “The more healthy things we’re putting in our gut, the healthier the bacteria in our gut is, and the better that will help our brain function. So there could be a connection between gardening and sleep there.”

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