Playing In Dirt Makes Chronic Inflammation Less Likely, Study Finds
7 minute read
You remember the good ol’ days playing outside and coming home covered in dirt? Mud pies used to be all the rage. Kids today are the same as we were, but society is different.
Diseases are everywhere and society has gone overboard on sanitizing every surface, including the body. The truth is that a little dirt never hurt anyone, and all these sanitizers and cleansers could be doing more harm than good.
The idea behind our actions is based on a beneficial premise, of course. By washing away dirt and germs regularly, we prevent the development and spread of disease.
Anthropological and biological studies, however, are showing that playing in the dirt is actually a great way to prevent chronic disease and illness.
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The more exposure children and babies have to germs at an early age, the less likely they are to have inflammation as they get older. Less inflammation means less risk of serious, chronic illnesses and overall better health.
An Educated Immune System
Inflammation was identified long ago as trouble for your body at the cellular level. Your natural inflammatory response is designed to help your immune system by allowing white blood cells to quickly reach the site of injury.
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Too much of a good thing can, however, be bad. Chronic or out-of-control inflammation can cause serious damage to your body and is responsible for diseases such as arthritis, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, and dementia.
Exposure to germs at an early age teaches your immune system and prepares it for effective inflammatory response regulation. In other words, the inflammatory response is limited to release only when necessary.
Just as the brain learns language through exposure, your immune system learns about disease in the same way. Key exposure to microbes and viruses helps your system to learn the ropes. Once it learns, it is better equipped to protect you from the true threats.
A poorly-educated immune system overreacts to every little exposure. This means inflammation is poorly regulated and you are more at risk for disease and serious health complications.
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We are becoming a society that carries hand sanitizer with us and has dispensers posted at every turn. As we wipe away all these microbes, we limit the germs we and our kids are exposed to.
This in turn limits the effectiveness of our immune systems because they fail to distinguish good from bad quickly enough.
Cardiovascular disease, dementia, diabetes, certain cancers, and depression are prevalent across the country. The one factor they all have in common is inflammation.
Inflammation can be prevented by allowing our immune systems to learn what is good and what is bad. If there is minimal exposure to germs, then everything will be deemed bad once it is finally encountered.
This means your defense systems and inflammatory responses are triggered way more often than necessary, and your risk for serious diseases increases.
Chronic inflammation is dangerous because it can spread and affect your whole body. Since the inflammatory response is triggered by your immunity, it makes sense to train your immune system in a way that avoids this.
When it comes to your kids, this is easy: they are still outside every day wanting to play in the dirt. Beyond getting them outside, you also want to be mindful of the overuse of antibacterial soaps and sanitizers.
A Little Dirt Never Hurt Anyone
The obsession with being clean has gone too far. In truth hand sanitizers are actually more harmful than good. The antibacterial agents used allow the bacteria and germs you come in contact with to develop resistance.
Like everything in life, adaptation is the key to survival, and bacteria can evolve to get past these defenses. You think you are clearing away germs, but in reality you are only encouraging the formation of a “superbug” that will be harder to fight off.
Apart from allowing your immune system to develop to its full potential, there are other benefits to letting your kids play in the dirt.
Vitamin D Exposure
This vitamin is essential for bone development, and the best natural source of vitamin D is the sun. Raise a wild child, let your kids play outside in the dirt, so they can get all the vitamin D that tends to be lacking from modern diets.
Vitamin D deficiency not only causes rickets, but it is also linked to serious chronic diseases, including some cancers, cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. In other words, you may want to get outside and play in the dirt with your kids too.
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Because of the brain-gut connection, the microbes in your gut are closely linked to your mental health. There is evidence that exposure to dirt and bacteria at an early age leads to a more robust immune system and better mental health.
A poorly functioning immune system causes an unhappy gut, and this in turn has been linked to depression. Bacterial exposure for children helps to ensure immunity is in optimal shape and therefore mental health remains positive.
Gradual exposure to the natural environment at an early age helps to prevent the development of allergies. The immune system becomes familiar with a wider variety of germs and microbes, so future exposures are not as extreme.
If you are protected from a certain microbe all throughout your childhood, you could develop a serious allergy once exposed to it as an adult. It is better to go get dirty while you can.
The Bottom Line
While there are harmful germs and microbes out there in the environment, small doses are not generally dangerous. This is not to say that we should all prohibit bathing or start eating from the floor, but the occasional encounter with some dirt is a good thing.
Your immune system needs to learn. And by learning when to attack, your defenses are more efficient and accurate, helping you stay healthier.