Watching a kid roll around in the dirt with a pet dog may not be helpful for a parent’s mental health, but it turns out that this type of activity may reduce risk of mental illness later in life. Exposure to pets and rural environments has been well documented as beneficial in reducing risk of asthma and allergies, but a new study shows how it may also benefit mental health.
Researchers recruited 40 healthy German men between the ages of 20-40, of which half had grown up on a farm and half had grown up in a large city without pets. Participants were asked to give a speech in front of a group of blank-faced observers and then asked to solve a difficult math problem.
Public speaking and than math is enough to make me nervous for sure, but how did study participants do?
Blood and saliva samples were taken at various intervals during and after the test, and those who grew up in cities had significantly elevated levels of inflammatory immune response to the stressors. Despite this, the same city-reared men reported feeling less stressed than their rural kin.
Previous studies have shown that an exaggerated immune response is linked to the development of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder later in life. Research has also shown that our immune regulatory responses are developed early in life and shaped by our microbial environment.
"If you are not exposed to these types of organisms, then your immune system doesn't develop a balance between inflammatory and anti-inflammatory forces, and you can develop a chronic, low-grade inflammation and exaggerated immune reactivity that makes you vulnerable to allergy, autoimmune disease and, we propose, psychiatric disorders," says Christopher Lowry, co-author on the study.
Researchers want to expand future studies to include women, and new locations to try to discover how much of the benefit comes from rural upbringing versus exposure to animals.