As a parent, your job is to protect your kids from harm and stories of superbugs and flesh-eating viruses may have you liberally basting your children with hand sanitizer, and cleaning your home with chemicals that promise to send bacteria packing. Well, put down the bleach and put your feet up. As it turns out, dirt is actually good for our kids!
Canadian microbiologist B. Brett Finlay, a professor at the University of British Columbia, and Marie-Claire Arrieta have released a study showing that dirt is beneficial for growing bodies called: Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Your Child from an Oversanitized World.
“The science is now telling us that [keeping kids clean] is actually not the best thing to do. These [germophobe] mothers need to ease off a bit and get over the ‘ew’ factor, and realize that kids are going to be kids, that they are going to put a lot of strange things in their mouth, and this is part of them experiencing the world, tasting the world we live in, as well as replenishing these microbes they need to develop.”
Let’s start with hand sanitizer and anti-bacterial cleaning products; while these products do exactly what they say, they contain many chemicals that are really bad for families like endocrine disruptors that cause developmental issues and early-onset puberty. We have always associated bacteria with illness, but we are now beginning to understand that bacteria are also essential to the healthy development and functioning of our bodies. A lack of necessary microbes and a diet which supports them has led to a rise in allergies, obesity, asthma and other chronic conditions.
We have ten microbes in our bodies for every cell, which means that we are basically walking bacteria farms, and that’s what makes us healthy. As our knowledge of bacteria grows, we are beginning to understand the incredibly important role that probiotics play in our bodies. Anti-bacterials kill all bacteria indiscriminately, even the good kinds that your kids need to thrive. The microbes found in dirt help to train their budding immune systems to respond to bacteria and they populate their gut flora and perform a plethora of functions.
“If you look at … Western society diseases — I’m including things like asthma, allergies, obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, depression, stress, anxiety, autism — these things actually all have microbial links.”
Studies show that kids who grow up on farms or with dogs are 20% less likely to develop asthma thanks to the microbes that they are exposed to. Here’s where it gets tricky, parents, because many of those microbes are found in feces, which Finlay says is ok! Feces contains the microbes of the host animal and there have been experiments where fecal transplants are utilized to repopulate the gut flora of patients who have undergone antibiotic treatments.
Another popular practice is one where babies born by C-section are swabbed with their mother’s vaginal microbes. Babies would normally be exposed to these microbes in the birth canal, and they help to bolster the immune systems of newborns. In this study, Arrieta points out that babies delivered by C-section are at a greater risk of asthma, coeliac disease, obesity, and autism. “It’s not for the faint of heart,” says Arrieta, “but as strange as it may sound it’s what happens with every baby delivered vaginally. If I had had a C-section, I would do it.”
Aside from tossing all your anti-bacterial products and hand sanitizer, you can also relax your cleaning regimens. That means not bathing your kids every day, not cleaning every surface and giving them plenty of outdoor time.
Finlay also suggests augmenting diets to help support gut bacteria. This includes adding fibrous fruits and veggies to the diet as well as whole grains and nuts and drinking lots of water.
Listen to Marie-Claire’s interview on CBC Radio about how dirt can help to keep your kids healthy and happy.
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