Doc's note: We're rounding out our favorite essays this week with a pick from our researcher, Ellen Chung...
"How Versailles Made Visitors Sick" reminds me of how gardening has kept my folks happy and healthy throughout the pandemic. They were fortunate enough to retire in an area with plenty of room for gardening, but they also have at least 20 different plants indoors as well. Going out to check on their flowers and plants has become a ritual, and they've kept the extra pounds off thanks to activities like weeding and watering.
They've also saved a ton of money on produce (mostly vegetables) by patiently growing their own blueberries, cherry tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, romaine lettuce, carrots, bell peppers, chili peppers, and napa cabbage. Freezing and jar-pickling vegetables have also allowed my folks to enjoy the fruits of their labor in fall and winter. And despite having moved to an area that's 100-plus miles away from the nearest ethnic grocery store where napa cabbage is typically sold, my parents have been able to make their own fermented cabbage (kimchi – a mainstay of their diet) thanks to their garden.
Plus, there are quite a few flowers that you can plant during the winter. And you can get a jump on spring's planting season by starting up seeds indoors, too, for some veggies.
It was a marvel of architecture with a garden built to overwhelm the senses...
And it stank.
In the 17th century, King Louis XIV turned a hunting lodge into one of the most opulent and massive palaces in history. Built by architects Louis Le Vau and Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the palace of Versailles covers over 3 square miles of territory, boasts 2,300 rooms, and contains thousands of masterpieces of artwork.
But the showpiece is a 2,000-acre garden created by André Le Nôtre, perhaps the most famous landscape architect in French history.
With its mile-long canal, artificial lake, and more than 600 water jets and other fountains – to say nothing of its hundreds of thousands of flowers and trees – Versailles still ranks among the world's best gardens.
But prior to the 20th century, if you dared to wander the gardens and grand palaces of Versailles, the place smelled rancid...
After the French Revolution, Versailles become a popular tourist attraction. More than 10,000 visitors a day walked among royal halls and piles of human waste. An awful stench soaked into the walls of the palace... a putrid mix of body odor, perfume... and piles of human excrement.
Versailles wasn't built with bathrooms, though later kings added a few. In the palace, you used silver chamber pots, which you could find standing in the corner of many rooms. You or a servant would dump the full pot out of the window. Couldn't find a chamber pot? No problem. Any old place would do.
And the hundreds of thousands of flowers in the gardens offered no help. The smell was so overpowering that walking through the Versailles gardens in full bloom would make you feel ill.
Today, it's different... Nearly 10 million tourists visit Versailles every year. And as my researcher confirmed during a visit in 2016, modern gardeners have achieved what the decadent French monarchs could not: pairing the beautiful grounds with a truly delightful smell.
Longtime readers know I love good smells in general and flowers in particular. Flowers and plants can provide us with a wide array of physical and mental health benefits. Sometimes, just looking at flowers makes a huge impact. We can also smell and ingest flowers to enjoy their benefits.
Studies have shown that flowers, gardening, and spending time with plants in nature does many things...
No. 1: Improves concentration and memory.
Our sense of smell plays a major role in how we perceive and interact with others. And when it comes to handling traumatic experiences, smell can be a trigger in activating PTSD. Losing your sense of smell is also considered an early sign of Alzheimer's disease (and an indicator of COVID-19)...
And that may be because smell and memory have strong ties.
In a 2018 study, neurobiologists at the University of Toronto identified how the brain recreates vivid sensory experiences from memory. This demonstrates the rich impact of smell on our long-term memory – like how you can remember how your favorite meal smells. That's why smell tests are now used for detecting early onset Alzheimer's.
No. 2: Improves your physical health.
Several studies have looked at the health benefits from simple gardening. Tasks like planting, digging, and weeding all give us the same benefits as low-to-moderate exercise.
That's why I say weeding is a great workout with results you will see, smell, and even taste.
For instance, a study from Oxford Brookes University found that people who participated in a six-month gardening program had better grip strength. That's crucial as we get older and our joints weaken. The study also found that participants boosted their heart rates while gardening.
Studies show weeding is good for arthritis, too...
And a study from Kansas State University measured physical activity levels in folks between the ages of 63 and 86 during gardening activities.
Those who reported gardening regularly had increased heart rates and better VO2 max scores (a common measure of cardiovascular fitness) than those who did not garden. The regular gardeners got their heart rates to a level that constitutes moderate exercise. So simply spending at least half an hour gardening a few times a week makes for a good workout practice.
No. 3: Reduces stress and generates happiness.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of people started hobby gardens.
In a 2022 survey study – distributed in the U.S., Australia, and Germany – more than 3,000 people said, "connecting to nature" and "relaxation and stress release" were the most important benefits of gardening for them.
Another study from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health found an inverse relationship between spending more time in "green space" areas and symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. People who spent more time in local gardens or parks reported fewer mental-health symptoms.
And a study from the Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture looked at folks who gardened and those who worked indoors. They found gardeners had significantly lower levels of cortisol. Remember, cortisol is our stress hormone. So higher levels mean more stress and inflammation.
One of my favorite ways to incorporate flowers into my life is getting my hands dirty in the garden...
I typically plant some fresh vegetables and herbs like tomatoes, oregano, and basil. I also love to add a few handfuls of wildflowers in places that need a little color... and I have dozens of Asiatic lilies (which smell lovely throughout the season).
Even if you don't have a yard, you can grow plants in your home with the right amount of light, the right combination of soil, and some water.
A simple way to do this is with an AeroGarden. One of my researchers uses hers to sprout mimosa and bonsai tree seeds.
The water-based grow system in the AeroGarden will even send alerts to your phone when it's time to add water or plant food. You can find one to suit your household at AeroGarden.com.
Earlier this year, I shared more physical and mental health benefits of flowers, how to use certain scents to cure what ails you, and a calendar to help you add flowers to your life year-round.
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
November 23, 2022
Editor's note: Our offices are closed this Thursday and Friday for the Thanksgiving holiday. Your next issue of the Health & Wealth Bulletin will be in your e-mail inbox on Monday, November 28. From the entire Health & Wealth Bulletin team, we wish you and your loved ones a happy and safe Thanksgiving.