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TURNS Out, Dirt is Good for You

By Jackie Burrell
Tuesday, January 27th, 2009 at 1:02 pm in Health & Safety.

GYMGERMS ILLUS.jpgApparently, toddlers had it right all along. Putting dirt and assorted street treasures — oooo, previously chewed gum! mmm, trash! – in your mouth may be critical to the development of healthy immune systems, say researchers. And our ultra-clean environments are dooming our children to a life of allergies, asthma and other autoimmune maladies.

Baby’s immune systems are like “unprogrammed computers” that need to be taught, Tufts Medical Center gastroenterologist Dr. Joel V. Weinstock told the New York Times in a fascinating article in this morning’s paper. Live too clean and the immune system doesn’t develop properly. Sampling dirt and other unappetizing items lets a child’s immune system learn from the assorted bacteria, viruses and – gag – worms what needs to be dealt with and, says microbiologist Mary Ruebush, “what is best ignored.”

Yep, you read that right. Worms are your baby’s friends.

So much so, that Weinstock and his colleagues have started using worms to actually treat some autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis. This “hygiene hypothesis,” the article continues, arose in 1989 when British epidemiologist David Strachan noticed that larger families had fewer asthmatic or allergic children. We’re guessing the theory goes on to say that the larger the family, the messier. You can certainly use our household to prove that particular theory! Four kids+2dogs=very, very messy. (And we’d appreciate it if you didn’t point out that the departure of three of those kids for college didn’t translate into any less mess. We’re totally blaming the dogs.)

OK, back to the topic at hand: Ruebush says she’s not suggesting we stop washing our hands, but that those antibacterial products that fill store shelves are not a good thing. They may actually breed bacteria that are resistant to drugs. Use plain soap and water, she says.

And Weinstock’s recommendations should gladden every child’s heart. “Children,” he says, “should be allowed to go barefoot in the dirt, play in the dirt, and not have to wash their hands when they come in to eat… Let them have two dogs and a cat.”

A cat too? Aw man … they make us sneeze.

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