Want Healthy Children? Let them Eat Dirt!

We all want healthy children, but did you know that children who eat dirt might actually be doing their bodies and long-term health a tremendous service?

Providing a healthy, clean environment for children is of paramount importance, but the over sanitation of childhood might actually be doing   children more harm than good.   The current germophobia with all its use of sanitizing hand gels, antibiotic soaps, antimicrobial kitchen sprays, germ-killing sanitizing wipes, pasteurized milk, irradiated food and antibiotic pharmaceuticals may actually contribute to a society plagued by autoimmune disease.

Children enjoy a natural proclivity toward nature in all its muck, grime and glory.   It seems that that natural proclivity may prove beneficial to long-term health.   By instinct, babies explore the world through their mouths and little escapes a slobbery gumming by an inquisitive infant.   This instinctual act is proving to be critical in the proper development of the immune system.

In a theory dubbed the Hygiene Hypothesis, researchers are studying the effects of the over sanitation of developed societies and its effects on the long-term health of the population.   Notably, they’re discovering that the more hygienic and sanitized our environment becomes, the more likely we are to develop certain diseases of the immune system – particularly inflammatory bowel disease, type I diabetes, asthma and even multiple sclerosis.

You see, just as muscles need training to become strong, the immune system requires training to effectively work.   Without that training, things go awry and the immune system can kick into overdrive – attacking the body itself instead of invading pathogens. When a child ingests various soil microbes and even worms, those factors help to effectively stimulate his or her immune system which later helps the immune system to effectively identify potential pathogens.   Without this consistent training and stimulus, the immune system can go awry.

We’re making immediate treatment the priority rather than long-term prevention

Over sanitation effects our lives on many different levels.   Consider the following modern hygienic processes unknown to our ancestors:

  • Pasteurization and Ultra-high Temperature Pasteurization: The intent of pasteurization is to eliminate pathogens, but the effect is to kill all bacteria including beneficial bacteria that help to colonize the gut and provide needed stimulus to the immune system.
  • Irradiation of Food: Like pasteurization, the intent is to eliminate pathogens, but irradiation also kills beneficial bacteria and introduces free-radicals into foods.
  • Household Antibiotic & Antimicrobial Sanitizing Products: Designed to allay consumers’ concern about germs in their homes, these household cleaners and hand soaps achieve what they promise, but at a cost.   While they kill germs that could make us very ill, they also kill beneficial microbiota that help our immunity.   The end result is that our immune systems lack experience in differentiating between the beneficial and the pathogenic bacteria which reduces its overall efficacy.
  • Broad-spectrum Antibiotics: Rather than letting illnesses run their natural course, doctors still prescribe antibiotics to treat minor illnesses and even prescribe antibiotics for injuries before infection is present.   These antibiotics kill pathogens, but also kill beneficial bacteria as well.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not the medical industry’s version of a luddite, but I do value letting nature progress as it will providing the danger is limited – and it usually is.     Dr. Subra Kugathasan, a researcher on the hygiene hypothesis has this to say as quoted in an article on the Hygiene Hypothesis:

“When we visit the doctor to suppress a lot of things like colds, rather than, in effect, letting nature run its course, we’re making immediate treatment the priority rather than long-term prevention.”

To build upon this concept, some research indicates that even intestinal worms – rare in developed nations – can provide an enormous benefit in stimulating the immune system.   Some research indicates that treating IBS and Chron’s disease patients with intestinal worms improves their condition.

Allowing children to enjoy dirt and grime and even eat dirt and mud pies can help to off-set some of the effects of an otherwise over sanitized society.   Further, exposing them to a range of beneficial bacteria through fermented foods, raw milk and a home environment free of Clorox wipes and Purel hand sanitizer might actually do them good – helping to properly stimulate and train their immune systems so things don’t go awry later in life.

In our home, I never batted an eye when my son swallowed a mouthful (or two or three) of dirt fresh from the biodynamic farm down the road.   I never bothered with wiping a toy that fell to the ground.   While   I certainly value a sanitary water supply, as with anything, moderation is the key and am in no urgent quest to rid my home of bacteria using the latest, chemically-based TV-shiny cleaner.

Three cheers for dirt!