Last week my husband and I were on the way home from Costco when I couldn’t stand it any longer and broke into the tub of raspberries we had just purchased. I began to pick out the most succulent specimens and pop them in my mouth as we made our way home. “Do you want some?” I asked my husband. Nah, he responded, “I feel like they are probably dirty”. “A little dirt never hurt!” I exclaimed as I continued to shovel the juicy bits of goodness into my mouth. But was I correct in my assumption regarding the potential contamination of my tasty treat?
A mounting body of research shows that exposure to germs in childhood facilitates development of the immune system. Scientists have studied the effects of eating dirt as well as exposure to creepy-crawlies like bacteria, viruses and worms found in the environment. Their findings suggest that increased exposure to these organisms reduces incidence of autoimmune disorders, allergies and asthma. Children who grow up on farms, for example, have decreased risk of developing allergies and autoimmune disease. Mary Ruebush, a microbiology and immunology instructor, states “What a child is doing when he puts things in his mouth is allowing his immune system to explore his environment. Not only does this allow for ‘practice’ of immune responses, which will be necessary for protection, but it also plays a critical role in teaching the immature immune response what is best ignored”. The connection between exposure to organisms and development of the immune system is logical, but what about the alleged relationship between dirt and brain health?
Researchers at the University of Bristol have discovered that the bacteria normally found in soil alter the brain in a similar way to antidepressant medications. It is believed that a healthy immune system, partially a result of dirt exposure, is essential for maintaining mental health. Mycobacterium, commonly found in soil, appear to increase release of serotonin. A lack of serotonin is directly related to depression.
So, nurse practitioners, reassure parents that not only does dirt not hurt, it assists in development of the immune system providing protecting from illness later in life. In fact, maybe parents should play in the dirt with their children- they might need the increased level of serotonin while their children are tracking muddy footprints around the house.