by Janelle Sorensen
I don't know how to say this without sounding crazy, so I'm just going to be blunt. When I was a child, I liked to eat pebbles and stones. Well, technically I didn't eat them, just sucked on them. Yes, I was a closet rock sucker. Away from the judging eyes of friends and family, I secretly relished their earthy, mineral flavor.
I'm sure, like any mother, my own mom would have been considerably horrified at the idea of her small child sucking on dirty rocks from God knows where. And, while my strange appetite persisted from about ages 4-7, almost all parents have witnessed their younger babies or toddlers shove an ample handful of dirt or sand into their mouths. Probably on more than one occasion.
What is it about kids and dirt? Why the deep mysterious magnetism? According to Mary Ruebush, PhD, author of Why Dirt is Good: 5 Ways to Make Germs Your Friends, the attraction is based on millions of years of evolution.
And, the good news is, it's a match made in heaven. Just like any other muscle in our body, the immune system needs to be exercised in order to fully develop and become strong enough to resist illness and disease. Eating dirt as a child turns out to be the ideal training to build your immune system's overall fitness.
We've written about the Hygiene Hypothesis and the overuse of antimicrobials in the past, but Ruebush, professor of microbiology and immunology for Kaplan Medical, really brings it home. Her detailed description of the immune system is not only extremely informative, it's also surprisingly entertaining. Really! She has these delightfully silly pictures of blood cells and bacteria that had my kids peering over my shoulder, giggling, and asking what the book was about. And, the writing is equally as comedic and engaging. She writes about viruses gettin' busy making baby viruses, macrophages burping up crumbs of their meals, and T-cells going to school and taking final exams.
The main points of the book are simple: let kids eat dirt and don't overuse antibiotics. According to Ruebush, "Mother Nature has given you the elements to build a strong immune system, but you have to put it into action and take care of it. A strong immune system gets built up by plenty of exercise -- that's why you need a lifetime exposure to plenty of dirt.
Your healthy immune system is your savings account for a healthy retirement. If you constantly make withdrawals and live with a negative health balance due to too much stress, too little rest, and too many chemicals, you will arrive at a point where you have no reserves for any catastrophic illness that might lurk in your future. A lifestyle that gives you the food, rest, exercise, and other elements you need for basic good health contributes to a healthy immune response and increases the likelihood of a long, productive life."
Sounds like the perfect prescription to me! So, relax. Let your kids get dirty. Stop trying to sanitize every square inch of your home. And, unwind with a good book (like "Why Dirt is Good"). It'll make your whole family healthier and happier.
(p.s. My childhood affinity for sucking rocks was likely pica, a medical disorder that can make people hungry for non-food items. Turns out, I'm slightly anemic, so my body was craving iron and hoping to get it from the mineral content of rocks. Pica is not uncommon in children and pregnant women. If you or your child are craving non-food items, talk to your doctor.)
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