In our society, we spend a lot of time cleaning our homes and ourselves. While modern hygiene is great — it keeps a lot of diseases at bay — taking it too far can actually be harmful. Research shows that when we avoid dirt and rely too much on antibacterial cleaners, our immune systems may suffer.
Exposure to microbes is a good thing
On the beneficial relationship between microbes (including bacteria and viruses) and our health, microbiologist Kiran Krishnan states that between 97 and 99 percent of microbes are beneficial. Krishnan, who is also the chief scientific officer at Microbiome Lab in Illinois, further explains:
“Exposure to microbes is an essential part of being human. Most of our immune system is comprised of tissue that requires activation by the microbes we’re exposed to. The immune system requires the presence of friendly bacteria to regulate its functions. Think of the immune system as an army, with tanks and missiles but no general to lead them. That’s the role friendly microbes play in your body; they’re the general.”
Krishnan summarizes by saying, “The more diverse your microbiome is, the healthier you are.”
Experts say ‘We’re too clean of a society’
Dr. Christopher Carpenter, Beaumont Hospital’s section head of infectious diseases and international medicine, agrees with Krishnan’s assessment. He states:
“I’m a sound believer that we’re too clean of a society. Our fear of germs has pushed us too far into trying to keep everything safe and sterile. That extreme is harming us more than it’s helping us.”
Let’s specifically how spending more time in the dirt —and getting a bit in your mouth here and there — can help you.
How exposure to dirt and diverse microbes may benefit your health
- Getting dirty can boost your immune system, due to the microbiome diversity discussed above.
- Bleaching away all that bacteria may be harmful. Research performed in 2015 found that rates of infection with flu, pneumonia, sinusitis and more were higher in homes where bleach was used to clean. In this study, researchers linked the use of bleach to lowering immunity.
- Exposure to dirt may reduce rates of asthma and autoimmune disorders. This was observed by studying children who grew up on farms, versus children who did not.
- Early exposure to certain microbes may reduce the chances of children developing asthma.
- More time spent outside is great for encouraging physical activity, in both children and adults.
- A certain type of bacteria found in dirt, known as Mycobacterium vaccae, may help lower anxiety rates and improve mood and feelings of well-being.
- Spending time outside may boost critical thinking skills, according to some research.
- Contact with the Earth and soil can provide a “grounding” effect, which may help to lower the risk of certain chronic conditions.
Where do the worms come in?
Some very interesting new dirt-related research is coming to the surface… and it has to do with hookworms. A study published this year in the journal Science Translational Medicine found that a hookworm protein administered to mice worked to ease their asthma symptoms. Other research has focused on the role of hookworms and combatting Crohn’s disease and other chronic conditions.
So, while it’s not advisable to find a hookworm and eat it (seriously, please don’t), proteins from these worms may someday be used to fight certain diseases. Soil and the creatures that inhabit it really are amazing!
All in all, when it comes to dirt, it’s okay to relax a little. You should still wash your hands, of course. But skip the antibacterial soap — regular will do. Natural cleaners are all you need for most cleaning. Vinegar, water, baking soda and lemon juice often do the trick just fine. Most importantly, get outside as often as you can. Get muddy! Grow some plants! If you get some dirt in your mouth, it’s okay… in fact, it’s probably doing you a favor.
– Tanya Mead