Do you use anti-bacterial soap? How about hand sanitizer? This blog may leave you wanting to loosen up a bit. Most of us groove with the idea that playing in the dirt isn't all that harmful for children. In fact, many families value the importance of connecting with the earth through gardening and outdoor activities. Previous human studies have shown that early exposure to microbes (germs) supports healthy immune system development, which is also known as the hygiene hypothesis. Microbe exposure in the first years of life has been seen to prevent allergy and autoimmune diseases such as hay fever, asthma and inflammatory bowel disease.
Researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) have conducted a study that provides evidence supporting the hygiene hypothesis. The researchers assessed immune systems of "germ-free mice" compared to mice living in normal environments with microbes. Findings show that germ-free mice had more inflammation of lungs and colon. When the germ-free mice were exposed to microbes during their first weeks of life, immune systems were strengthened over an entire lifetime.
Just as it takes training to build muscle, the immune system needs training as well. The more we are exposed to, the stronger our immunity grows. Colds, flus, worms and bugs stimulate the immune system so that later in life they are able to identify and fight off these pathogens more effectively.
Not only is exposure to dirt shown to improve the immune system, but it also supports a healthy mind. Dirt is said to be as effective as anti-depressant medications. Researchers suspect that microbes affect the brain indirectly by causing cytokine resease from the immune system, activating certain nerves that stimulates serotonin release. Serotonin is often called the "happy" neurotransmitter and is usually deficient in depressive states. (Prozac encourages moreserotonin)
Society has become so germ-phobic that we are causing even more health issues than before. Pasteurization and irradiation is thought to make food more safe, but it also kills beneficial bacteria needed for digestive and immune health. Household antimicrobial sanitizing products do exactly what they say, but while they kill germs, they also kill healthy microbes that protect our immunity. Eventually our immune systems get "out of shape" and are unable to identify beneficial versus pathogenic bacteria.
One should not be afraid if microbes, for even the most dangerous bacteria live on/in the body normally. The key determinant to maintaining a healthy state is BALANCE. We need bacteria of all kinds to ensure a healthy microflora. Antibiotics oftentimes cause more illness due to the fact that they wipe out all bacteria, "bad" and "good." Using antibacterial soap works similarly, wiping out normal, healthy flora and may encourage overgrowth of antibiotic-resistant, disease-causing bacteria. Plain soap and water is sufficient for encouraging healthy bacteria populations.
Don't fret about getting your hands dirty. Kids (and adults) can go barefoot, play in the dirt, and not wash their hands before eating. Have some pets. Letting go can actually be the best way to prevent asthma, allergies, and digestive disorders! Want to encourage healthy bacterial exposure? Support the immune system with daily probiotic supplement and eat plenty of fermented foods like sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir and pickles. If you eat dairy, go for raw milk and cheeses. Eat diverse, colorful plates of organic, local vegetables every day. Connect with the earth and get dirty. Your immune system will thank you.
Dr. Alicia McCubbins is a naturopathic physician who strives to educate, motivate and inspire. Please feel free to share your thoughts or questions so that we may collectively grow through knowledge.