Over the past decade, growing evidence has shown the importance of dirt in our daily lives. This is especially true of kids who are increasingly growing up in environments that are so “clean” that it may be doing their health more harm than good. We’ve moved from rural lifestyles of playing in the dirt outdoors to suburbia where kids often play indoors and have every last microbe killed off with chemical disinfectant sprays. But, as it turns out, many of the autoimmune illnesses that are growing more common may be linked to a lack of dirt.
Why Dirt is Good For Kids’ Health
Dirt is good for your kids. From worms to animal poop and everything in between, getting down and dirty is increasingly important for the little ones. One famous study, called the Hygiene Hypothesis concluded that organisms like millions of bacteria, viruses, and even worms that kids come in contact with are important for the development of their immune system.
“[T]he decreasing incidence of infections in western countries and more recently in developing countries is at the origin of the increasing incidence of both autoimmune and allergic diseases.” The increasing incidence of autoimmune disease includes some biggies like multiple sclerosis, inflammatory disease, allergies, and asthma.
“What a child is doing when he puts things in his mouth is allowing his immune response to explore his environment,” Mary Ruebush, a microbiology and immunology instructor, wrote in her new book, “Why Dirt Is Good” (Kaplan), reported in The New York Times. “Not only does this allow for ‘practice’ of immune responses, which will be necessary for protection, but it also plays a critical role in teaching the immature immune response what is best ignored.”
Another study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that exposure early in life to microbes trained the immune cells to resist disease later in life. Exposure to those same microbes as an adult did not have the same impact. Certain microbes that used to be found in the gut, which is very closely tied to the immune system, are no longer present.
“These perform important physiological functions but because of modern life they are changing and some are disappearing,” Martin Blaser, MD, professor of internal medicine at New York University said on WebMD. “Those disappearances have consequences — some good, some bad.”
Not sure how to reintroduce your kids to dirt? The first step is to get them outside. Put them in contact with the outdoors as much as possible by creating a play area outside, choosing outdoor activities, and planning hiking and camping trips. And avoid disinfectant cleaners which may strip the body of good bacteria. Instead, stick to simple soap and warm water when it’s time for the little ones to come in from the great outdoors and wash up for dinner.
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