Love it when science (or at least people smarter than me) comes to my aide to shore-up one of my long-held beliefs (even if said belief had no substantial reason to be held).
That belief: Kids and dirt is a good thing.
When I was a youngster, like before I was five years old, I remember my father coming home from work, picking up my little pink body and proclaiming loudly, “You must be a member of the Black Foot tribe,” and then tickling my bare and very dirty feet. Playing in dirt and mud is something old pictures show I must have enjoyed immensely.
When I got older, pre-teen years, I remember my dad leaning over to me and in a low, conspiratorial voice so Mom and the sisters couldn’t hear, “Wanna’ hear a dirty joke?” And, then with a smirk, continued, “A boy played in the mud.”
I can also remember Mom being fond of saying, “You have to eat a pound of dirt before you die, so have fun.”
Is it any wonder I believed in the wholesomely goodness of dirt, of being one with the soil beneath my feet? (Of course, I’ve also heard eating boogers is good for kids, too. The theory being if they weren’t, boogers would taste bad versus salty good. Go figure.)
Imagine my delight when I recently ran across an article earlier this year headlined, “Why Kids Need Dirt To Be Healthy.”
The online article was penned by “Katie, the Wellness Mama,” a wife and mom of six. (So all facts presented have gotta’ be true. Nobody who is the mom of six would lie, right?) Her article states, “We have antibacterial soap, antibacterial spray, antibacterial cleaning wipes and a myriad of disinfecting cleaning products. Kids are growing up in clean, disinfected, sterile environments. We go to great lengths to make sure we are protected from germs. At the same time, we have rising rates of allergies, autoimmune problems and gut related disorders (especially in children).”
And then she asked, “Could there be a connection?”
Curious, more research was needed
I ran across an article from NPR about two dudes who are definitely smarter than me — so smart that last year they wrote a book called, Dirt Is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child’s Developing Immune System. The dudes, Jack Gilbert and Rob Knight (both PhD’ers) back up Mom and the Wellness Mama’s claim about dirtiness.
In the NPR interview, this question was asked, “Are things like allergies an unintended consequence of trying to protect our kids too much?” Answered one of the authors, Gilbert, “Absolutely. In the past, we would have eaten a lot more fermented foods, which contain bacteria. We would have allowed our children to be exposed to animals and plants and soil on a much more regular basis. Now we live indoors. We sterilize our surfaces. Their immune systems then become hyper-sensitized. You have these little soldier cells in your body called neutrophils, and when they spend too long going around looking for something to do, they become grumpy and pro-inflammatory. And so when they finally see something that’s foreign, like a piece of pollen, they become explosively inflammatory. They go crazy. That’s what triggers asthma and eczema and often times, food allergies.”
The more I researched the more info I discovered. Like, did you know there is even term for the line of thinking that dirt is good for humans. Well, it’s true. Hygiene Hypothesis is “a lack of early childhood exposure to infectious agents, symbiotic microorganisms (such as the gut flora or probiotics), and parasites increases susceptibility to allergic diseases by suppressing the natural development of the immune system.”
This hypothesis says the lack of exposure leads to defects in the establishment of immune tolerance.
A doctor of internal medicine in New York, Martin Blaser, MD is quoted saying, “When we overly sanitize infants’ environments to protect them from illness, we may instead be depriving them the opportunity to build a strong immune system.”
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For the record, I still play in the dirt, gardening, with bare and dirty feet, without gloves so dirt gets under my finger nails. The soil I work is a small plot without any chemical or pharmaceutical fertilizers added. The worms like it, the plants like it and I like it. Not sure how my health is effected by tending to my plants, but I know another bonus aside from internal health benefits. Working the garden (with no media in my ears) has been great mental therapy!
Thinking out loud a little: If you’re letting little Johnny and Susie crawl around the yard, on the grass and in the dirt, I would ask doctors about fertilizers and kids. My folks didn’t fertilize and neither do I.
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And, what about boogers? Hey, this is a column about dirt. Want to know about boogers and kids, do your own research (cuz I already did!)