This is a guest post from Jena Halman-Kincaid, RN, board member at CSU.
Kids love to get dirty, don’t they? At least it seems like my girls do. On any given day they can be found in our backyard digging with their small shovels and piling dirt on one another. It’s in their hair, in one’s diaper, and under their nails. They are yucky.
You know what they also love? Eating things off the ground. My girls were the worst as babies when it came it putting “floor treasures” in their mouths. From a few months to two years old there was not a day that went by when I didn’t find them munching on something from the floor whether it be a toy, or shoe, or pea that rolled under the cabinet from last night’s dinner.
The Always-Learning Immune System
I know most of us moms can relate; new crawlers and toddlers alike can be found putting anything and everything they find in their mouths. But do you think that stops around two? Nope, it’s just not as obvious. What about that school aged child that drops his cookie on the ground and his parents aren’t around. You think he’s going to throw it away?…I think not, we all know where that cookie is going, in his mouth. Full of germs and dirt and icky stuff.
But is this actually a bad thing? Or is it that our children and babies innately know what is best for them? Are their natural tendencies smarter than our learned fear of germs? Most definitely. Our children instinctually know that an immune system only matures by being exposed to the icky grime we fear as a culture. And sadly this fear for all things dirty and grimy is leading us into an emerging era of poor immunity and chronic illness.
The development of our children’s immune systems is weighed heavily on their exposure to microbes. The immune system, much like our brain, is something that needs to learn as it goes. Think of it much like a child learning a new math concept. At first the concept overwhelms them, just as getting sick does. However, the subsequent times the “problem” is presented the child knows how to handle it because it learned to do so. These concepts then build on one another throughout time and eventually the child knows calculus.
But, if the child was to never learn basic math, something like calculus or even algebra would be insurmountable. Which is exactly how an immune system reacts when it never learns the basics. It rolls over and gives up, leading to a defunct immunity that reacts in unpredictable ways.
How can we foster a robust immune system?
In short, let our kids get dirty and don’t fear germs. Of course there are other factors that go into this as well like eating a Real Food diet, taking/eating probiotics, avoiding antibiotics, and preventing leaky gut. However, an overwhelming amount of evidence also shows that by allowing our children to be exposed to germs and illness at a young age their immune systems are more developed to handle what comes their way later in life.
Let’s take a minute to see what current research really shows. This study (via PubMed, source below) supports that early life exposure to a wide variety of microbes leads to a sturdy balance within the inflammatory system. As well as a lack of exposure can lead to a deficiency in immune development.
A sturdy inflammatory system is not only important to fighting off illness but also allergies and other chronic childhood diseases. According to a study from the Institute of Environmental Medicine in Sweden, “Epidemiological, clinical and animal studies taken together suggest that broad exposure to a wealth of commensal, non-pathogenic microorganisms early in life are associated with protection, not only against IgE-mediated allergies, but also conceivably against type-1 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease.” So by allowing our children to be dirty we are not only preventing allergic diseases like asthma and eczema, but also IBS and diabetes!
Amazing that such a small intervention can have such big consequences later in life.
Besides actually letting our kids play outside with animals, dirt, and grime, another very important intervention is ending the frequent washing and sanitizing, both in their environments and their hands. Studies show that high levels of washing and/or sanitizing hands in 15-month-olds are associated with increased eczema and wheezing, and that those with eczema had it more severely if their hands were washed at high levels.
Yet another very large study, of 25,000 people, supports this theory as well. The researchers found that the more frequently antimicrobial products (personal care and household) were used in a home, the rate of allergy symptoms in children also increased. And if you still need more convincing a leading British respiratory medicine journal, Thorax, published a study that again shows the more frequently the home uses chemical household cleaning products the more the children have ongoing wheezing (an allergy predictor). Even up to twice as more likely! Editor’s note: here at Kitchen Stewardship we love to talk about and use green household cleaners!
This is not to say the only cause of allergic conditions is overly-hygienic environments. Keep in mind that in some very dirty environments asthma rates are just as high or higher than overly sanitized ones. This “exposure hypothesis” works on a sliding scale; you cannot go too far in either direction.
Let’s all learn to maintain a healthy balance of germs for our children’s sake. Throw out those gallon sized portions of hand sanitizer, baby bottle/binky sanitizers, and rules about not letting children play in the dirt. Let them self-guide their play and use their own intuition to lead the development of immunity.
Lastly, always remember that a strong immunity is not developed due to a single factor. Things like gut microbiome, toxin exposure, antibiotic use, and diet are major players. This confirms that while playing in the dirt and not over-washing are important, those practices must be in tangent with other lifestyle choices like probiotic rich foods, environmental toxin reduction, and real food.
Two additional ways we can support a healthy immune/inflammatory system is entering daycare at an early age and exposure to farm animals.Bottom line, dirt is good and being overly hygienic is bad. Don’t reach for the sanitizer each time you blink and don’t worry about that cracker your kid just ate off the ground. These are all things that test and DEVELOP the immune system so later in life it knows how to function. With lower rates of autoimmune disease, obesity, diabetes, allergies, asthma, and inflammation your children will thank you later that those fun times in the dirt were not just merely for entertainment. Germs are nothing to fear and with properly developed immune systems our children can lead life strong, powerful, and healthy…the way they should be.
Bottom line, dirt is good and being overly-hygienic is bad. Don’t reach for the sanitizer each time you blink and don’t worry about that cracker your kid just ate off the ground. These are all things that test and DEVELOP the immune system so later in life it knows how to function. With lower rates of autoimmune disease, obesity, diabetes, allergies, asthma, and inflammation, your children will thank you later that those fun times in the dirt were not just merely for entertainment.
Germs are nothing to fear and with properly developed immune systems our children can lead life strong, powerful, and healthy…the way they should be.
Sherriff, A., Golding, J., & The, A. (2002). Hygiene levels in a contemporary population cohort are associated with wheezing and atopic eczema in preschool infants. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 87(1), 26–29. http://doi.org/10.1136/adc.87.1.26
Kramer A, Bekeschus S, Bröker BM, Schleibinger H, Razavi B, Assadian O. Maintaining health by balancing microbial exposure and prevention of infection: the hygiene hypothesis versus the hypothesis of early immune challenge. J Hosp Infect. 2013 Feb;83 Suppl 1:S29-34. doi: 10.1016/S0195-6701(13)60007-9. Review. PubMed PMID: 23453173.
Krämer U, Heinrich J, Wjst M, Wichmann HE. Age of entry to day nursery and allergy in later childhood. Lancet. 1999 Feb 6;353(9151):450–454. [PubMed]
Sherriff, A., Farrow, A., Golding, J., the, A., & Henderson, J. (2005). Frequent use of chemical household products is associated with persistent wheezing in pre-school age children. Thorax, 60(1), 45–49. http://doi.org/10.1136/thx.2004.021154
Hong, S., Kwon, H.-J., Choi, W.-J., Lim, W. R., Kim, J., & Kim, K. (2014). Association between exposure to antimicrobial household products and allergic symptoms. Environmental Health and Toxicology, 29, e2014017. http://doi.org/10.5620/eht.e2014017
Von Mutius, E. (2010). 99th Dahlem Conference on Infection, Inflammation and Chronic Inflammatory Disorders: Farm lifestyles and the hygiene hypothesis. Clinical and Experimental Immunology, 160(1), 130–135. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2249.2010.04138.x‘