Let’s Hear it for Dirt

ILOVEDIRTMost of the moms I know have become acutely worried about cleanliness. I’m not talking shining floors and perfectly scrubbed counter tops, I mean the absence of germs, antibacterial gel, never-cough-in-public, god forbid your child has the slightest runny nose, personal cleanliness.

We live in a world where every cable news station has one — or several — health shows, and each has a resident physician whose job it is to make breaking news out of the hazards that lurk behind every sneeze. Add to that the newspapers, magazines, WebMD, and on and on … and don’t even mention swine flu ’cause that’s a topic for another day.

But this idea that we all need to run around sterilizing everything has really gone too far. Let’s dig back in our memories to a time when there was no Purell.

Back in the dark ages of the ’80s and ’90s, when my kids were small, life was simpler (though you wouldn’t know it from the hair and fashion styles). The play areas at Ikea had those ball pits, where kids could roll around in each other’s snotty germs for hours while mothers agonized over which DIY nightmare bookcase would transform their lives into that sleek, Swedish showroom.

When my kids’ pacifiers (we called them suckers in our family) toppled out of their mouths onto the floor, we’d pick them up, give them a lick, (yes — parental saliva IS as antiseptic as rubbing alcohol), and pop them right back in.

While grocery shopping, the cart seemed like a perfectly good place to plop a kid or two. One in the seat, one in the basket, and our biggest worry was that they’d stand up and fall out, bonking their heads.

Sure, there were those moms who boiled the bottles and the rubber nipples and painstakingly wiped down each baby toy every evening, but they were the distinct minority. When advising new moms, I’d tell them that running feeding stuff through the dishwasher was perfectly fine, and a little dirt never hurt anyone.

And that brings us back to my purpose … a little dirt is a good thing.

Let me explain. The human immune system is amazing. When babies are born, they carry their mom’s immunity with them for about 6-12 weeks. It’s like a mini insurance policy that covers them while their own white blood cells and antibodies are gearing up.

As mom’s immunity wanes, baby’s is on the move. It works by responding to anything foreign — meaning germy stuff — that it sees. The cells responsible for churning out all our defenses against infection get the signal … YUCKY STUFF out there! Time to get armed! … and they do.

The key is that your babe’s immune machinery needs to ‘see’ germs in order to defend against them. That may be part of why Mother Nature makes babies SO curious about their environment. They want to touch, smell, taste, and look at everything — up close and personal, no holds barred. They pick up whatever they can and direct it right to their mouths. And it makes us nuts.

Mary Ruebush, Ph.D., an immunologist and author of “Why Dirt is Good: 5 Ways to Make Germs Your Friends” is worried that in the effort to avoid illness, we’re failing to expose our kids to normal germs and crippling their immune systems. She sees the rise in allergies and autoimmune disease as clearly related to our increase in cleanliness.

Dr. Ruebush says “Let your child be a child. Dirt is good. If your child isn’t coming in dirty every day, they’re not doing their job. They’re not building their immunological army. So it’s terribly important.”

I know, it’s a bit counterintuitive. Cleaner must be better, right? AND (you’re thinking) haven’t I been urging you to wash those little hands frequently singing the ABC song and cough into your elbow? What gives?

Here’s the thing: make a distinction between sick germs (the ones that come from sick people) and healthy germs (the ones that help grow the immune system and are actually good for you). Use your gut and your common sense and lighten up the Purell. Think ’80s … without the clothes and hair.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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