That is Dirty! Put It in Your Mouth: Healthy Immune Systems Through Dirt
A few years ago, when my child was still an infant, I found myself in one of those awkward situations with a host of new mothers that verbally and enthusiastically supported one another, while quietly judging each other’s parenting choices…always judging. I can’t remember specifics, but I remember I was about to feed my child a snack and found myself scanning the immediate environment for a bathroom, or at least some running water to wash my child’s hands. Upon witnessing my vigilance, one mother said something to the effect of, “Oh you are so good, aren’t you?” and she followed this up with a self-dismissal to the tune of, “I just let my kids eat all kinds of dirt and hope for the best.”
Over the past several decades, parents have bent over backwards to keep their children clean and free of germs of all kinds. This endeavor has ranged from the sensible (frequent washing of hands) to the dubious (anti-bacterial everything in every form imaginable) and fueled an industry eager to feed your fears about everything from your garden-variety icky germs to virulent strains of flu viruses. The marketing of products to keep your family safe and germ free have fueled this fleeting fantasy of a hypersanitized childhood, free of the plagues and pathogens that had befallen previous generations. It is a noble, but futile fight.
In recent years we’ve learned that these germ-free adolescents may be suffering from too much of a good thing. Too much cleanliness can be a bad thing for a young child’s developing immune system, according to an article on Slate.com by Amanda Schaffer. The article goes on (backed by multiple recent scientific findings) to assert that early exposures to germs help teach a child’s immune system to regulate itself, and provide much needed stimulation and training to insure future health and a bolstered immunity.
Some of the evidence suggests that a small percentage of gastrointestinal bugs and viruses, which may or may not cause illness, might protect later in life against allergies, asthma, and skin inflammations like eczema (note: this sort of exposure does not work the same for respiratory illnesses and infections and may in fact increase the likelihood of future infections and complications). As mentioned in the article, Hepatitis A, a virus transmitted by contaminated food and water, seems to bolster immune training, too: Kids with a certain common gene variant who had been exposed to hepatitis A appeared to be less likely to suffer from a range of allergic disorders.
This idea of bolstered immunity through controlled and selective exposure is not entirely new. Our vaccine and immunization regimen is based upon the idea that controlled exposure to dead or controlled pathogens will foster lifelong immunity to virulent diseases like Polio, Hepatitis, and Measles. So what to do? Should we just take this information with a grain of salt (or dirt) and keep on keeping on with our anti-bacterial wipes and magic UV sanitizing wands? Or should we turn our babies out into the backyard with the worms, dirt, and trace amounts of fecal matter and hope for the best? Please share your thoughts along with your personal experiences on the matter? Do you feel safer in a world stocked with anti-bacterial wipes or do you feel like exposure to all the nasty bits provides the key to a healthy childhood?