Dirt is NOT Dirty – How Playing in the Dirt Benefits the Immune System

Dirt is NOT Dirty – How Playing in the Dirt Benefits the Immune System

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 ‘tea’ with flower petal garnish, 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 tasted dirt, licked rocks 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.

What is it About a Child’s Attraction to Dirt?

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.

Playing in Dirt Builds a Strong Immune System

By no means am I suggesting that you feed your child spoonfuls of dirt. However, 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.

Dirt Fights Allergies and Asthma

In 2012 researchers at Harvard Medical School published a  study showing the health benefits of dirt. Studying two groups of mice—one that had been exposed to microbes and one that had been raised in germ-free environments—they found that the group with early-life microbe exposure had significantly lower numbers of inflammatory immune cells in the lungs and colon, giving them a better chance at avoiding asthma and inflammatory bowel diseases later in life.

Said researcher Dr. Richard S. Blumberg in a press release: “These studies show the critical importance of proper immune conditioning by microbes during the earliest periods of life. Also now knowing a potential mechanism will allow scientists to potentially identify the microbial factors important in determining protection from allergic and autoimmune diseases later in life.”

Dirt Is Good for Skin

A 2009 study from the University of California at San Diego discovered that bacteria on the surface of our skin play an important role in combating inflammation of the skin when we’re injured. According to the researchers, the bug, called staphylococci, works by dampening down overactive immune responses from the body, which can lead to rashes or cause cuts and bruises to be become swollen and painful. Said Professor Gallo, who led the research: “These germs are actually good for us.”

Dirt is Good for Memory & Healing

A 2008 study at the University of Michigan found that memory performance and attention spans improved by 20 percent after subjects spent an hour out in the nature. Another study from University of Pennsylvania found that hospital patients recover faster and need less pain medication when they are in rooms with views of the trees instead of plain walls or brick. It’s clear we all need regular doses of the outdoors, children most of all.

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.

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