Tuesday, August 28, 2012

4 Reasons Your Kids Should Play In Dirt

There is a saying that "dirty kids are happy kids" but this saying goes far behind happiness because, truth be told, more and more research has been finding that dirty kids are in fact healthier kids! Allergies and auto immune diseases are on the rise in children, and scientific hypotheses and smart mamas have been saying its because kid's are not getting exposed to germs and bacteria as much as they used to. Children nowadays have a sterile environment free of as many germs, microbes, and well pain old dirt as possible for parents. In the rush to protect our children, are we really just putting them at risk for an improperly developed immune system?

Lysol commercials and even Clorox are now touting that we must disinfect our children's environment, their toys on a daily or weekly basis, and even the air they are breathing! This marketing campaign is particularly disturbing because children's immune systems are developing strength by the constant exposure to these germs, microbes, and bacteria. So by limiting the number of germs they are exposed to we are in fact lessening the load on their immune system which will limit its effectiveness in preventing future sickness and disease. In fact, the National Institutes of Health conducted a study from 1988 to 1994 and found that 56% of Americans ages 6-59 had an allergy or sensitivity to at least one allergen. This statistic is up by almost 5 times from a similar survey completed in 1980.

In a study published by Science in March of 2012, mice exposed to little or no germs and mice with a normal  bacteria infested environments were studied in comparison with each other. Based on the results of this study, researchers found that the germ-free mice had inflammation of the lungs and colon due to hyperactivity of the immune system's T Cells. The inflammation they found closely resembled asthma and colitis which are frequently occurrences in many of today's children. In addition, these researchers found that mice who were exposed to germs during the first weeks of life (equivalent to the first year or more in humans) had a longer-lasting immune system protection even if exposed to less germs in adult life. It seems that microbe exposure in early life is essential to strong immune system function later in life.

In addition, pet or farm animal exposure at an early age can also help children avoid allergies according to another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In addition, this study found that children in larger families that were exposed to a larger range of bacteria had fewer allergies than those in the smaller families of most American families today.

So what's the real deal with these studies and statistics? Well to fight off the notion that all germs are bad, we need to look at how our immune system works and more importantly that not all germs are bad. In fact, our skin is normally and naturally covered in bacteria that help protect our bodies. This bacteria can not only help to prevent inflammation, but according to Dr. Mary Ruebush, an immunologist and author of Why Dirt is Good, it actually helps cuts and scrapes heal. She also mentions that early exposure to germs and pathogens can actually reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease as adults! Dr. Mary recommends parents let their kids play in the dirt (and suggests parents do the same) not only for the bacterial benefit but also as a stress reducer. Digging in the dirt releases the feel good hormone serotonin in the brain which can induce relaxation and better moods for the whole family.

So what can you do to help your little ones immune system develop strong?

1) Don't sterilize your child's life. Children exposed to germs at a younger age have stronger immune systems and let's face it, your child will put everything in their mouth whether you've cleaned it or not. So don't fret if he or she shares toys with Fido because they are preventing cardiovascular, allergies, asthma, and colitis in later life.

2) Let kids play in the dirt. Join them outside by planting flowers or a vegetable garden together to nurture great bacteria balance and some mood boosting serotonin release for everyone. If your little explorer is searching under the couch, don't stress if he gets a hold of some under shoe goo or left overs the mop didn't quite reach.

3) Encourage healthy gut bacteria. Make sure your kids are taking a probiotic especially if they're suffering from colic or gas or have recently had a vaccination or round of antibiotics. This will prevent harmful bacteria from taking over the body environment and help get the beneficial bacteria back into the foothold of health in their bodies.

4) Play it smart when washing hands. Don't use antibacterial soap all the time as this can wipe out the beneficial bacteria on the skin that can help heal and reduce inflammation in case of skin injury. Antibacterial hand cleanser can do the same, but dry out skin quickly due to the added alcohol. I recommend to only use regular soap and water and not to use soap at every hand wash. Just rinsing the hands in warm water while rubbing them together can remove most residual residue and help decrease the amount of bacteria on the hands. Of course if Johnny down the street has strep throat and is coughing all over your house, it would be a smart idea to use soap and stick to washing up prevention as much as possible.

5) Encourage children from the neighborhood to come on over and play. While you may not have 5 kids living under your roof, the more is truly the merrier. The more exposure your sweetie gets from Suzy down the block and her 4 siblings, the better off her immune system will be. Host a sleep over or playdate and team up with other neighborhood moms to spread the responsibility. After all who doesn't love an afternoon to themselves catch up on that novel you've set aside for the past 15 months or to throw another load in the laundry?