While many of us know that playing in the dirt and being exposed to healthy bacteria somehow benefits children’s immunity and overall health, researchers have now discovered one of the reasons why.
Turns out that there is an anti-inflammatory fat in the bacteria found in some soil, and it’s thought that it promotes wellbeing in several ways.
Our obsession with cleanliness and anti-bacterial products is thought to have driven an increase in ill-health in humans.
A British scientist named David Strachan first came up with this ‘hygiene hypothesis’ back in 1989. He suggested that the lack of exposure to microorganisms in childhood, an obsession with sterile environments and losing touch with nature was impairing our immune systems and resulting in higher rates of allergies and asthma.
Hooray for dirt!
But in the last ten years or so there has been more and more mainstream chatter surrounding the importance of healthy bacteria to the gut – and consequently overall – health.
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Exposure to health-promoting bacteria in dirt during childhood really DOES provide protection against physical and mental ill-health the study senior author Professor Christopher Lowry confirms.
“The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation,” Lowry noted. “That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders.”
Lowry says this fat that they have found in dirt is able to prevent inflammatory responses by sort of smothering them – and thus prevent illness.
“It seems that these bacteria we co-evolved with have a trick up their sleeve,” he explained. “When they get taken up by immune cells, they release these lipids that bind to this receptor and shut off the inflammatory cascade.”
The tip of the iceberg
The professor notes that this is exciting because it’s almost definitely the first of many such dirt-based discoveries, and that these findings provide further clues on future treatments for common illnesses.
“This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils,” Lowry said.
“We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us.”
Super exciting and yet another reason to stop worrying about muddy floors and let your kids get outside play in the dirt as often as possible.
Dig in the vegetable garden, hunt for natural treasures on a park walk, muck about on the oval, make mud pies – and reap the rewards!