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!

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What people are saying

  1. Augie says

    If they dug a little deeper for the earth worms, they would benefit too. I saw a show on TV (so you know it has to be true) that earth worms fed to children in a study showed some nutritional benefits (?)

    Also, they say people in some areas that are strarving have done well with mud pies mixed into their diet.

    Augie´s last post: SWAT Team Raid on Homeschool and Food/Health Ministry for Hungry Families.

  2. Red Icculus says

    Eating dirt reminds me of the disease called “pica” that affects pregnant women where they eat dust and dirt to get trace minerals.

    Red Icculus´s last post: Canna Aqua Hydroponic Nutrient Line.

  3. says

    We’ve always let our kids play in dirt. We often get strange looks from people who see them covered in dirt, or see us letting them chew on sticks or rocks. Any idea I had that I could prevent this kind of thing flew out the window when I realized that my kid was learning how to crawl across the floor, on his hands and knees. His hands were constantly going where my feet went (places I considered dirty), and they were constantly going into his mouth. I could either be grossed out and fight it, or I could just realize that this is what kids do. It’s normal.

    Neither of my boys ever get sick (okay, there are the occasional, once a year stomach bugs), and I think their robust immune systems are in part due to our new found determination to let our kids free-range.

    • says

      HI there
      I agree totally with where you’re coming from, especially with boys!
      Would you mind having a look at my blog – I’d love to hear your comments
      Cheers, Jilly

  4. says

    Oh Jenny, you saw my blog post and you know how I feel on this matter haha! A little dirt, germs, and worms are good for kids :) I think everyone looks better with a little dirt on them.

    Erica´s last post: Calender Work.

  5. Ryan says

    Another issue with antibiotics and antimicrobial cleaning products is their effect on the increasing resistance exhibited by wild bacterial populations to them. This is most convincingly demonstrated by the strains of E. coli that have emerged from industrial feeds lots.

  6. says

    Where I grew up the saying was “dirt makes ya grow” and I believe it to be true.

    I will be forwarding this article to my mother in law who believes that pinesol will save the world and that germs are the enemy.

    She nearly has a coronary watching my children play in the dirt and is constantly chasing them with a washcloth when she visits. And I’ve converted her son somewhat too.

    My kids are pretty healthy(knock wood) and they are growing too so yeah, a bit of good old dirt.

    Funny, my mother in law is a farmgirl..she probably ate dirt herself in her day lol

    Breeze´s last post: Link to my story book: The Tick of the Engine.

    • nina says

      My mom always said “God made dirt so dirt don ‘t hurt”. My kids loved to be kids play in the dirt, dig in the mud and climb the rocks..They have always been very healthy and know their kids play hardy and are just as healthy.

  7. says

    Kids need dirt. Not just for fun and beneficial bacteria’s and what not. They learn from it as well. Dirt is a fascinating substance that changes texture from place to place (garden, driveway, grandma’s, state further south, etc.) It is cool and mushy when wet, yet helps support and feed plants. My kids love dirt and I certainly don’t flip out when they come in dirty.

    Deanne´s last post: ADVENTURES IN DADDYHOOD! (Potty).

  8. says

    GREAT post! That is the cutest baby picture. I have pictures of Kate eating dirt. I always knew it was good for her. :-)

    CHEESESLAVE´s last post: Top 15 Healthy Eating Tips (More Butter, Please).

  9. NitaS says

    I laughed out loud upon reading this title! For years I’ve been saying that the problem with sick children is clean babies. It is wonderful to read that others share the same beliefs about over sanitation. We have 4 boys who are very seldom sick but very often dirty!

    Antibiotics are not a cure all! Resently my husband found himself at the emergency room with horrible stomach pain. After an x-ray the doctor on call told him he might have and infection that is probibly viral and perscribed TWO different antibiotics. Viral…Antibiotics…? We didn’t fill it. Instead he change his diet, chews more and eats lots less. He feels so much better and has lost weight (most of the spare tire around his waist which we know can cause major health issuses later.)

    We have been know to scour the supermarket shelves for NON-antibactirial soap. It’s darn hard to find it this germ phobic community. Next thing I’ll have to start making my own soap : )

  10. says

    I’m so happy to see other dirt- and muck-loving parents! My son dropped a fork on the floor (it wasn’t visibly soiled) the other day and when someone insisted on giving him a new, clean fork, I cringed.

    Nita – that is wild the doctor provided 2 abx for a viral infection. It reminds of the pedi in town who prescribes abx for thrush. Seriously … what do they teach in medical school?

    Jenny´s last post: Want Healthy Children? Let them Eat Dirt!.

  11. says

    I was raised in Brazil, a tropical country where parasites are common and the odds of being exposed to nasty bacteria are real. Yet, when I was a kid, we were encouraged to run around outside on bare feet and roll in the mud whenever it rained. My mom kept the house clean but never worried about us getting dirty outside and never cleaned a toy that fell on the floor. As a result, my brothers and I seldom got sick and even to this day, we rarely ever get sick. I haven’t had a cold or flu in over 10 years, despite now living in Canada where colds and flus are common in the winter when most people spend so long inside. My husband had a similar childhood here in Canada and never gets sick either.

  12. Juanita says

    I think it is so interesting that someone has finally started talking about the fact of over santization. I grew up on a farm and really didn’t ever think about dirt nor were my parents overly concerned. Sometimes with the garden we would pull veggies out of the ground and brush the obvious dirt off and eat it there in the garden. My children played in the dirt and probably ate dirt. They are pretty healhy. Unfortunately my son-in-law is a clean freak (nice guy) and my granddaughter is being raised with over santization. She has had lots of colds, infections and etc.
    Yah for dirt

  13. says

    This is great!! I can’t wait to bring my 8 month old and 3 yr old with me to my garden plot (we live in the city) and let them play around in the dirt and have my 3 yr old help me plant and weed. I knew a mother once who would boil her pacifers every morning and take them out of the boiling water with a tweezer and put them in a sanitary bag for the day and every time her child would drop one she would tweeze one out of the clean bag for him. EVERY DAY she did this!! I’m thinking- make sure there is no visible hair on it or something, maybe rinse it under some water and it’s good. She thought I was the worst mother ever for this. HA!

  14. says

    As a mom with two young boys on the farm, I cannot AGREE more with you! I am going to knock on wood, but our boys are HEALTHY!! Even among their friends who get sick and are off of school, our boys continue to run amuck and say healthy.
    I won’t say that hubby and I are the same, BUT … other than some super high (genetically pre-disposed) cholesterol, we get the occasional cold and every few years one of us will get the flu.
    Go dirt!

  15. D. says

    Yeh, but there’s dirt-dirty and there’s filthy-dirty. I agree with letting kids get dirty outdoors just playing in the yard. But I wouldn’t let them dig through a city dumpster. My house was clean, not sterile, but quite clean. I have three grown children who are all healthy, slim and strong with great teeth, skin and hair. They were healthy as little kids, too. Surprisingly, they would get dirty outdoors, but their favorite thing to do was take a bath!

    When I myself was growing up, we had a neighbor boy who ate burnt matches. Musta needed the sulfur!

    And, BTW, it’s Crohn’s disease (in case anyone was trying to look up information regarding this disease), not Chron’s.

  16. Lara says

    I wish I was eating dirt when I was a child.
    Now I have a bunch of autoimmune disorders and I’m going to invade myself with helminths artificially to supress the incorrect auto-immune attacks.
    Though there should be a balance of course – may be it is not the best option to live in absolute anti-sanitary conditions, but there is no good in germ phobia as well

  17. Joy says

    Hi, I am in 99% agreement with letting them eat dirt and what-not. I have three children, 4 and under, and we have four big gardens out back that we put compost stuff and manure and all that jazz and make it very “bio dynamic” the thing is, i have been concerned at them wanting to be in it 24-7 lately. the baby (21mos) just eats it…i’m a little nervous about them getting intestinal worms and parasites. should that be a concern or is that medical hogwash?

  18. Joanne says

    Your links no longer work, I would like to read more on the hygiene hypothesis!

    Thanks for writing this!

  19. Helen says

    I’m in my 30s and can’t remember eating dirt as a child; I was afraid of it. The only year I can remember when I didn’t get sick when all the rest of my family was sick was last year. Is it a coincidence that last year I ingested more dirt than in my whole entire life due to a leaf-blowing job that would regularly have me swallowing dry dirt billows? Also, my brother must have been the cleanest kid in the city growing up, never allowed outside to play as a toddler, spotless house, friends commented he smelled like perfume when they held him, and he developed asthma during school years. I wish doctors would look into the benefits of earth-to-human contact more. Right, I’m off to get my hands dirty!

  20. Megan says

    This guy that I did work for, who is in his 80’s, was telling me and my workmates that he remembered swimming in the river when he was a kid. Swimming in that river has long since been advised against…even though it’s okay to water ski in it. Anyway, he said that he would be swimming along and once in a while see a piece of $#it, and just calmly push it aside and keep swimming. Then he said “Oh, we had no idea about this or that germ.” Immediately, I realized that he WASN’T the first person to ever swim in a river with a poo floating in it (or somewhere at the bottom of it either). In fact, he was probably about the 9 billionth to do so (depending on how long the world’s actually been here). And if in all that time, with all of the germs that are everywhere, if we didn’t die off…then it’s only really possible to kill us by artificial means. Like pasteurizing milk, orange juice, and apple cider. Or by feeding us a bunch of immuno-supressants, like hormones, and using pesticides on fruit, and in the air from airplanes that are “trying” to keep the tick population down. And on and on. I mean, plant some illnesses and then immunize everyone….because of course your immune system was designed by an idiot. I had one immunization in my life, and never had any childhood illnesses, and I was the dirtiest kid you ever saw. I was thinking about this dirt thing last week, too. Kids are told by their instinct to make a catalog of immunities, and keep it current. That’s why we ate all sorts of things…that makes sense.

  21. Holly says

    This is probably a very old discussion, but I’d like to add that I’m somewhere in the middle. No vaccinations, no antibiotics, let the kids get over their minor colds, no mega cleaners. They get pretty dirty playing too… But if we’re in a public place- then that toy is going to get cleaned before it goes in the mouth for sure!! Public places are a whole different story. Our germs aren’t dirty, but everyone else’s are. 😉

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