Dirt is NOT Dirty – How Playing in the Dirt Benefits the Immune System
Guest Writer for Wake Up World
At present, our culture is overly obsessive about germs, cleanliness, and hygiene. Parents are constantly washing their children’s hands, using antibacterial soap, alcohol tinged wipes or changing them the second they have dirt on their clothes.
I don’t know about you, but when I was a child I liked to make mud pies, walk around barefoot and climb any tree I could find. Instinctively I craved to immerse myself in the natural environment.
When I had my own children I reminded myself of this as they shoveled sand into their mouths at the beach or tasted a pebble or a leaf. It is natural for children to be as close to nature as possible. Well, now research into the connection between getting dirty and a immune system health has found that this modern obsession with germs and cleanliness might be leading to the rise in allergies, asthma and inflammatory bowel disease. (1
What is it About a Child’s Attraction to Dirt?
According to Mary Ruebush PhD, author of Why Dirt is Good: 5 Ways to Make Germs Your Friends, the attraction is based on millions of years of evolution.
Just like any other muscle in our body, the immune system needs to be exercised in order to fully develop and become strong enough to resist illness and disease. Eating dirt as a child turns out to be the ideal training to build your immune system’s overall fitness.
Wrote Mary Ruebush:
“What a child is doing when he puts things in his mouth is allowing his immune response to explore his environment. 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.”
Children who grow up on farms and are exposed to all sorts of bugs, worms and natural elements have demonstrably less allergies and autoimmune problems than urban children who spend most of their time indoors. Playing outside barefoot every now and again and digging in the dirt more often would do wonders for the health of today’s youngsters.
Our Natural Instinct is to Love Dirt
New research says that it is possible that children today are ‘too’ clean, and would be better off sticking to their natural instincts.
In a 2012 study, researchers tested what would happen to mice if they were bred to lack stomach bacteria and how it would effect their immune system. It found that exposure early in life to microbes helped to train certain immune cells to resist disease later in life. Exposure to those same microbes as an adult did not have the same effect. The immune cells affected were generally those in the lungs and colon due to hyperactivity in T cells. This is similar to that found in humans with asthma.
The most important point from the research is the idea that during the early years of life there are some crucial biological developments that happen which cannot be recreated later on in life — and building a strong immune system is one of them. (3)
Playing in Dirt Builds a Strong Immune System
By no means am I suggesting that you feed your child spoonfuls of dirt, rather I am letting you know that you can stop worrying about dirt and germs and place your energy elsewhere. People are so worried about their children catching a cold or flu that they are obsessively focused on whether their child is clean and germ-free. However, this seems to work against the natural rhythm of life. Science has proven that exposure to dirt is beneficial to a child’s life. They love dirt because they instinctively know it is good for them in order to grow up with strong immune systems.
We can now relax and trust that our children will actually be healthier the dirtier they get. Take a deep breath and enjoy watching the joy your child experiences playing in dirt while knowing that they are building their intuitive instincts and a strong immune system.