Each week, my daughter returns from preschool, clothes covered in dirt; from her grandma’s house stained from head to toe; from an outing with a friend, hands so dirty she could write her name with the grime under her fingernails. Apologies ensue. “I’m sorry she got so dirty.” or “I would have washed her if I’d had the time.” or “She sat down right in the dirt before I could stop her.”
And always I reply, “A dirty kid is a happy kid! PLEASE don’t apologize.”
Kids should get dirty. We are a part of nature. It is harmful to remove ourselves from it.
Bacteria is NOT the Enemy – So Much For the Hygiene Hypothesis
Bacteria has a bad reputation. We tend to think that any and all of it will hurt us. Parents keep immaculate houses in an attempt to eliminate the “threat” of bacteria, washing hands with anti-bacterial soap, mopping with disinfectants, cleaning the counters with bleach. All of this is not only unnecessary but harmful to the immune system. It’s surprising just how many benefits there are to getting dirty.
1. Mycobacterium vaccae improves mood
There are millions of organisms living in the dirt but one that has been researched for its health benefits is called Mycobacterium vaccae (M. vaccae). This bacteria has been shown to allay depression.
It is not entirely clear why but researchers have found that contact with the bacteria releases cytokines which activate the nerves in our bodies to relay signals to the brain and release serotonin into the prefontal cortex – the part of the brain involved in mood regulation (exercise has been shown to have similar effects).
2. Mycobacterium vaccae is linked to higher IQ
This same release of serotonin that occurs when playing in M. vaccae laced dirt, has also been shown to improve cognitive function. The serotonin that is released while playing in the dirt temporarily boosts the IQ so that learning is facilitated. Maybe rather than making kids listen to Mozart before a test, we should send them out for recess.
3. Staphylococci heals wounds
Staphylococci often gets a bad rap but it has it’s benefits as well. Staphylococci can prevent inflammation. After an injury, if staphylococci are present on the skin, the redness and swelling which often accompanies cuts and scrapes can be prevented. Forget the ointment, just use a good smearing of dirt before you bandage up!
4. Soil microbes boost the immune system
Playing in the dirt introduces the immune system to bacteria which it can then store in memory. The memory of the immune system is protects a growing body from getting sick later in life. A strong immune system also provides resistance to allergies. Getting outside more, rather than staying in more, might actually help reduce allergies.
5. Clay improves digestion
Dr. Weston A. Price noted in his book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration that clay was “the treatment used by several primitive races for preventing and correcting serious disturbances in the digestive tract. This consisted in the use of clay or aluminum silicate which modern science has learned has the important quality of being able to adsorb and thus collect toxic substance and other products…”