Can Playing in the Dirt Help Boost Children’s Immunity?

By Kristen Chandler

Can Playing in the Dirt Help Boost Children’s Immunity?

While food allergies continue to rise, especially among children, we still don’t have a proven cause as to why. Theories, yes, but no solid explanation. One popular theory is the hygiene hypothesis: put simply, society has become too clean. Given the fact that we live in a world where people load up on antibiotics, receive vaccines, pile on the hand sanitizer and often spend more time indoors than out, this theory actually makes a lot of sense.

About the Hygiene Hypothesis

The hygiene hypothesis was developed in the 1990s by Dr. Erika Von Mautius. When studying allergy rates in East and West Germany, Von Mautius discovered that children from the more sanitized environments in West Germany were more susceptible to allergies and asthma than the children from East Germany.

The immune system requires exposure to bacteria and microbes to help boost its defenses. In effect, the body needs to learn how to fight off infections, but in these times of over-sanitization, our immune systems are getting “bored.” With the lack of exposure to what it actually needs to fight off, the immune system begins to attack things it should not—like food.

Von Mautius concluded that, while many lifestyle factors contributed to the immune system’s development, the children in East Germany, who were exposed to more microbes, had stronger immune systems and were less prone to allergies than the children from West Germany.

A growing number of doctors are agreeing with this hygiene hypothesis. Dr. Leigh Vinocur of the American College of Emergency Physicians told CNBC that people are “creating allergies” for themselves by being too clean. She went on to say that the overuse of antacids and antibiotics can damage the gastrointestinal tract, creating more health problems. Even the FDA has looked into the validity of the hygiene hypothesis.

Studies in Melbourne have shown that children born to Asian parents living in Australia have a higher risk of allergies than those born to Australian parents in the country. On the other hand, children born in Asia who then move to Australia before the age of five have a lower risk of food allergies. This has led researchers to conclude that the Asian environment is training the immune system within the first few years of life to fight off disease.

Recent research has shown that the Amish also have a lower rate of asthma and allergies. Dust samples from Amish homes were given to mice, and these mice were then found to be protected against allergic asthma.  Furthermore, children who grow up on farms with biodiverse soil are also less likely to have allergies and asthma.

Another study showed that, in addition to allergies, children who are over-sanitized are up to 20 percent more likely to get the flu and other viruses.

What Comes Next?

So, what is our takeaway from these studies? While all of these cases do support the hygiene hypothesis, there is still no research that directly links cleanliness to a higher risk of allergies. What we do know, though, is that getting a little dirty certainly won’t hurt children. Outdoor play among children has decreased over the years thanks to video games and television. And because many parents are “afraid of germs” so to speak, children who do play outside often barely get dirty. Playing outdoors and being exposed to dirt and sunlight also benefits children mentally and physically.

So, trade in your hand sanitizer for soap and water. Try to buy food that is grown in rich, organic soil. And lastly, let those children play outside and get dirty!

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