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PHOTO: Travis Swan/Flickr
The feel of mud squishing between your toes … But wait, what about worms?!
The constant rings of dirt under your nails … Oh, but shouldn’t you wash your hands before you eat?!
The joy of plucking a ripe strawberry out of the garden and biting into its warm sweetness … Yikes! Aren’t you going to rinse it first?!
Our industrialized world has become squeaky clean—and chronically ill. Many children today are prevented from going outside to play, whether to keep them clean or due to an inflammatory condition, such as allergies, asthma or eczema. Many of these ailments can be traced to a lack of good dirt in our own bodies. The problem, as it seems, may actually turn out to be the solution.
A Little Dirt Doesn’t Hurt
While in today’s Western culture, children with soiled feet and grass-stained knees are hurriedly rushed to the bathtub and slathered with antibacterial soap, the loss of our connection to the garden and its dirt means a loss of connection to all the good microbes that live inside it.
In the February 2015 issue of the journal Nature, researchers explain that the societal shifts in our microbial communities could be contributing to our hyper-reactive immune systems. “Drivers of these changes might include antibiotics; sanitary practices that are aimed at limiting infectious disease, but that also hinder the transmission of symbiotic microbes; and, of course, our high-sugar, high-fat modern diet,” says Moises Velasquez-Manoff, author of Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Diseases.
Worldwide studies based on children’s lifestyles are proving that early exposure to a healthy microbiome—the community of bacteria living in your body—is a key factor to a strong immune system later in life. A study in Canada found that babies delivered by cesarean were lacking certain “good” bacteria. Likewise, breast-fed infants showed an advantage in the richness and diversity of microbes living in their systems.
A European study gathered samples of allergens from the homes of children attending a Waldorf farm school and compared samples from more urban home environments. As expected, more dust mites, animal dander and mold show up in the homes of farm kids. A separate study in Austria found that farm children suffer from significantly fewer allergy attacks. Based on these studies, you can conclude that children’s immune systems develop tolerance to allergens when the children are raised with the allergens on a day-to-day basis.
Household cleaning can wash away those beneficial microbes that help young people’s immune systems develop. A recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that homes with dishwashers had more children with allergies than homes where dishes are hand-washed. To compound that hypothesis, the homes without dishwashers were also more likely to eat farm-fresh and fermented foods. More complex laboratory research turns up evidence that Crohn’s disease, autism and anxiety are also connected to the health of our internal ecosystems.
A Microscopic View of Health
Any farmer will tell you the food they grow is only as healthy as the soil it grows in—the more biodiversity, the better. One gram of healthy soil could contain billions of microorganisms: bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes. This soil life builds structure and performs essential ecological functions below ground.
Friendly ecosystems full of anti-inflammatory microbes protect our bodies. “Our resident microbes seem to control aspects of our immune function in a way that suggests they are farming us, too,” says Velasquez-Manoff in Nature.
Microorganisms live everywhere—your gut, skin, hair, couch, dog—and can affect everything from your physical well-being to your mental and emotional states. Psychobiotics, a potential new pharmaceutical field, is finding correlations between what’s living in a person’s gut and their “gut” reaction to different stimuli. This could mean that having fun in the dirt as a kid could actually lead to a healthy mood as an adult. However, untangling exactly which bacteria affect particular conditions will keep scientists busy for many decades.
The Human Food Project’s American Gut study is taking a crowd-sourcing approach to connect the microscopic dots. Run almost entirely by volunteers, the citizen science effort has accepted thousands of donations—financial, as well as, ahem, fecal. For $99, they provide a personalized, scientific report and analysis of your very own gut bacteria and include your information in the massive database they are creating in an attempt to understand our microbial and behavioral patterns on a population scale. Co-founder Rob Knight explains in Nature, “We have the potential not just to read out our microbiome and look at predispositions but to change it for the better.”
Just as the soil microbiome varies from field to field, the human microbiome varies from person to person. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that autoimmune diseases affect three times as many women as men; some theorize that it could it be due to the expectation that little girls stay cleaner and not be as messy as little boys. Subtle yet distinct boundaries between cultures also show up under the microscope. Compared to more primitive societies, such as the Hadza of Tanzania, industrialized Western diets and lifestyles reveal a reduction in variety and abundance of good gut bacteria.
Tony Stallins, associate professor of geography at the University of Kentucky, has been trying to translate the biology and sociology research into geographic language and draws some healthy conclusions. “People think they are going to be able to finalize this relationship between us, our environment and our bacteria, but things will always evolve,” he says. “The medical world depends on this stability, so patenting this may not be possible.”
Get Your Hands Dirty
Remy Hendrych is a health coach and nature-based mentor who lives with Crohn’s disease. She ferments her own foods and draws on traditional wisdom to guide her diet and lifestyle.
“Personally, it’s one of the few foods I think I can draw ‘conclusions’ about in my own health—that with fermented food there seems to be a strong correlation with a number of improved health markers,” Hendrych says. “I have also seen this in other people I’ve worked with who have been sick and are healing.”
Do you need to improve your own microbiome? You’ve got some options: You could swallow pills of probiotics. (Look forward to the new dirt movement, when pharmaceutical companies commodify your microbiome and sell you pills of beneficial bacteria to target your specific condition.) You could also make and eat fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir and sauerkraut, which naturally contain many of these probiotics.
Another, often overlooked option, is to pay close attention to the quality of the soil that produces your food. Invite your young friends out to the garden or field with you to plant some potatoes in the rich tilth or harvest some spring onions.
Stallins muses about the cures for the ills we’ve created. “We can simulate dirty fingernails, with all the possible side effects, or we can just go out and get our fingernails dirty,” he says. The side effects of that might just be pure, childlike joy.
About the Author: Karen Lanier has spent half of her life as a transient park ranger and photographer, intrigued by the intersections of culture and nature. Now she’s learning how to put down roots by settling in Lexington, Ky., and growing squash vertically.