‘Dirt is Good’: Why Children Need More Exposure To Germs
New parents often inundate themselves with information to ensure that their child is being properly cared for.
Our world is a ceaseless source of information, and trying to determine what information will benefit our family and children’s well-being, and what is just being marketed to us for profit, can be an overwhelming and difficult process. NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro recently conducted an interview with scientist Jack Gilbert, who studies microbial ecosystems at the University of Chicago. After his second child was born, he, like many other second-time parents, adopted a more relaxed approach toward child-rearing. As part of this process, he decided to investigate the science behind germs and the risks they pose to children in the modern era. Perhaps surprisingly, his research demonstrated that most germ exposure was actually beneficial. As adults, we naturally want to protect our children from anything that could hurt them, but what we may not realize is that, by trying so hard to protect them, we could actually be hindering their ability to develop a strong immune system. When we rush to wipe their hands and faces after playing outdoors, or block the affectionate licks of our pets, we prevent germs from working their magic. Gilbert references the way life used to be, explaining that “we would have eaten a lot more fermented foods, which contain bacterial products and bacteria. We would have allowed our children to be exposed to animals and plants and soil on a much more regular basis.” Today we are so careful to ensure anything on them or around them is sterile, when in fact, that lack of exposure and over-sterilization creates a hyper-sensitized immune system: You have these little soldier cells in your body called neutrophils, and when they spend too long going around looking for something to do, they become grumpy and pro-inflammatory. And so when they finally see something that’s foreign, like a piece of pollen, they become explosively inflammatory.
They go crazy. That’s what triggers asthma and eczema and often times, food allergies. By allowing your child to play out in the dirt and remain relatively “dirty,” you are increasing their chances of building a strong immune system. One main crime most parents are guilty of, despite the good intentions behind the behaviour, is over-sterilizing their environment. Gilbert specifically mentions how using hot or even warm soapy water is fine for washing your child’s hands, and much healthier than using a hand sanitizer. Gilbert also debunks the “5 Second Rule” myth, explaining it takes “milliseconds for microbes to attach themselves to a sticky piece of jammy toast, for example. But it makes no difference. Unless you dropped it in an area where you think they could be a high risk of extremely dangerous pathogens, which in every modern American home is virtually impossible, then there’s no risk to your child.” This is definitely something every parent thinks about the moment the pacifier drops from their infant or toddler’s mouth. It’s a knee-jerk reaction that most people can’t help but have. Yet Gilbert offers some controversial advice for how to respond in this situation, recommending that, when this happens, parents should lick it rather than wash it. One study showed that for “parents who licked the pacifier and put it back in — their kids developed less allergies, less asthma, less eczema. Overall, their health was stronger and more robust.” We’ve written before about the amazing benefits dirt has for us, even as adults. Soil microbes, specifically mycobacterium vaccae, are considered a natural antidepressent that mirrors the effect on neurons that drugs like Prozac provide. You can read more about that here. Being outdoors in general presents enormous benefits to our physical and psychological well-being. One practice in particular, known as “Earthing,” or “grounding,” even encourages you to go barefoot in the grass.
The logic behind grounding is based on the intense negative charge carried by the Earth. This charge is electron-rich, theoretically serving as a good supply of antioxidants and free-radical destroying electrons. Walking barefoot on the ground enhances our health and promotes feelings of well-being — a concept that can be found in the literature and practices of various cultures throughout the world.
There is a tremendous amount of science behind this, and a lot of published research, so for more information on that, the studies, and how you can get grounded, please refer to our article, How To Absorb Earth’s Free Flowing Electrons Through The Soles of Your Feet. What about bathing? “Over-washing can actually damage the skin and lead them to have a higher likelihood of infections and over-inflammatory reactions like eczema.” Children under the age of six months and infants up to about 18 months can safely go a few days without bathing — using a warm wash cloth is enough. All this information inspired Kevin to co-author Dirt is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child’s Developing Immune System, a QA- based guide that helps parents to better understand what they need to know when it comes to their children and germs. This book cuts through all the internet noise and gives you science-backed research to help you better raise your child. “The internet is rife with speculation and misinformation about the risks and benefits of what most parents think of as simply germs, but which scientists now call the microbiome: the combined activity of all the tiny organisms inside our bodies and the surrounding environment that have an enormous impact on our health and well-being.” Lulu closes the interview by asking Kevin, “What should we do?” “I would strongly try to encourage the consumption of more colorful vegetables, more leafy vegetables, a diet more rich in fiber as well as reducing the sugar intake. But just generally, allow your kid to experience the world.” .
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