It’s time to get down and dirty. Want to grow a healthy kid? Turns out kids need time outside–in the dirt. Exposure to diverse bacteria is critical. In fact, research is showing that by preventing babies and children from following their natural impulse to get dirty, we prevent them from doing exactly what they need to do to develop a healthy immune system.
In fact, spending time around farms, parks and other green spaces can benefit children in surprising ways, protecting against allergies, enhancing immune function and potentially even improving attention span and academic performance, according to the in-depth research Dr. Shetreat-Klein, a pediatric neurologist in New York and an instructor at New York Medical College, explores in her new book, “The Dirt Cure: Growing Healthy Kids With Food Straight from Soil.”
How Did This Happen?
For most of the past century, we have considered bacteria and parasites to be bad news, and for good reason: They cause disease, pandemics and death. In fact, since the advent of antibiotics, vaccines and sterilization, dying from an infection is a rare event in the Western world. In the US, our lifespan has increased 30 years since antibiotics, vaccines and sterilization.
Unfortunately, this progress has come with a price: an explosion of chronic non-infectious diseases. Diabetes, allergies, asthma, inflammatory bowel diseases, autoimmune diseases, autism, obesity and certain types of cancer are at an all-time high. The incidence of some of these disorders is doubling every 10 years, and they are starting to appear sooner in life, often in childhood.
All of these diseases have a genetic component, but their alarming growth cannot be explained by genetics alone. Recent studies find a direct link between the presence and absence of certain bacteria and all of the chronic diseases mentioned above. It turns out that the microbes within us are much more than quiet residents; they are an inherent part of our physiology, and altering them leads to disease.
From the moment we are born, we begin getting colonized by bacteria, which kick-start the development of our immune system.
Although scientist don’t understand it entirely, we do know that most bacteria will teach these immune cells to tolerate them, whereas some bacteria—the pathogens that cause diseases—prompt strong resistance. The result is to make the intestine a relatively controlled and harmonious place.
Another basic function of bacteria is to aid in the regulation of our metabolism. We obtain energy from food that is digested and absorbed in the intestines. Besides helping us digest certain foods that the intestines can’t handle on their own, bacteria produce compounds that help to define how we use or store energy in our bodies. New research also shows that our microbiota plays an important role in neurological development and even in the health of our blood vessels.
Such discoveries have led scientists to call our microbiota a “new organ,” perhaps the last human organ to be discovered by modern medicine. Most of this knowledge is still relatively new and many pieces of the puzzle remain unsolved, but protecting the initial developmental stages of our microbiota clearly has a significant impact on our health.
Never before in human history have babies and children grown up so cleanly, and our diets have lost many of the elements most crucial to the health of our guts. We have become very bad hosts to our microbes.
What Can Parents Do?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration took one helpful step earlier this month when it banned some chemicals used in antibacterial soap, but the most important changes need to take place in our everyday routines.
Parents can expose their children to a wide diversity of bacteria just by encouraging them to spend time outside. Today children spend much less time outside than they did only 20 years ago.
Babies and toddlers often aren’t allowed to play in the dirt or sand, and when they are, they are wiped clean immediately.
For much of the past century, we have ignored, and often destroyed, the bacteria that keep us healthy. It’s time now to correct the balance.