Dirt is Good
- story by Christina Richardson
National Public Radio is one of my go-to places. A few days ago I caught the tail end of an interview with Dr. Jack Gilbert, who is the co-author along with Dr. Rob Knight of Dirt is Good, discussing the positives of allowing a little dirt into our lives.
If your child drops a pacifier do you wash it off or lick it? Hand sanitizer or warm soapy water? What about the five-second rule for a dropped food item? Is it ok to let the dog lick a child’s face?
All of these questions are addressed in the book, and it appears that many scientists think many people overdo cleanliness.
When I was little we played outside, and making mud pies was one of our activities. I am sure that I ate my fair share of dirt. My mother would be very pleased to know that her kicking us out of the house to play in the morning with orders not to return until lunchtime was good for our immune systems.
Mind, Body, Spirit
According to research on the subject, “From birth to age three, your child’s microbiome, especially in the gut, is extremely dynamic.” By age three the adult levels will be in place and everything you need is there. “There they stay, fending off pathogens, breaking down fibers, tuning the immune system and even influencing mental health.”
Why is dirt good? Claire Fraser-Liggott, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Maryland, made a good case for dirt in a TEDxMidAtlantic talk. Fraser-Liggott says that we are not alone, and by that I mean in our own bodies. We are a little planet, a microbial ecosystem with hundreds of trillions of microbes living with us.
“If you go back to fundamental principles of ecology, we know that high diversity ecosystems are more stable and resilient.” (9:22 in the Claire Fraser’s TED Talk video). Lacking that in our bodies, we are more prone to allergies, food allergies, and asthma.
One of the studies has an ick factor, so bear with me: Many people who have compromised microbe colonies due to antibiotic use or other factors are prone to problems with their digestive tracts and have diarrhea that is difficult to treat. Fecal transplants have been very successful in treating these disorders.
And yes, that means taking fecal material from a person with healthy microbes and planting them in the intestinal tract of the patient. Dr. Fraser-Liggott states that the cure rate is 95 percent for those patients that had a “re-poopulating of the gut.” Her words, not mine.
If you want to be a part of the study go to americangut.org. There is a kit to order so you can send in your own sample and get back information on how you are getting along with your microbes.
There are five recommendations that seem to be consistent with all the studies I have reviewed as to why it is good to expose your children to getting dirty.
- Go easy on antibiotics. They are great for bacterial infections and have saved lives. At the same time they carpet bomb and kill both bad and good bacteria.
- Eat foods high in fiber — nuts, legumes, and vegetables to feed your microbes. Fermented foods like yogurt and kefer are great.
- Wash hands with not-too-hot or warm, soapy water. Antibacterial soap or sanitizer kills all the good microbes. Let the kids stay dirty for as long as they are playing and until it is time to eat or after they go to the bathroom.
- Getting dirty is good. Being outside and touching and seeing expands minds and welcomes good microbes.
- Dog kisses may not be as harmful as one might think. In fact, studies show that the exposure to pet microbes may actually help prevent asthma and allergies.
The premise is that this lack of connection to nature contributes to obesity, distraction and depression. The book offers suggestions on how to develop an environment-based education program that enhances problem solving, critical thinking and decision-making skills.
And as for those questions in the first paragraph? According to these physicians and scientists, it may even be beneficial to lick off that pacifier; wash with warm soapy water instead of using anti-bacterial; if you are in a safe area like your home, pick up and eat the dropped food item; and let the dog lick away.