Despite popular belief, keeping children in a sanitary bubble may not be what is best for them. Science continues to suggest that getting a little dirty is actually better for kids.
In an interview with The Current‘s Anna Maria Tremonti, Canadian microbiologist, and co-author of “Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Your Child From An Oversanitized World,” B. Brett Finlay, says,”We’re finding these microbes help our bodies train the immune system.”
Finlay says that many of the ailments that plague Western society actually have microbial links. Obesity, anxiety, stress, depression, autism, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel diseases — even things like allergies and asthma — can all be linked back to microbes, according to Finlay.
Hand sanitizer, while used with good intentions, is likely doing more harm than good, says Finlay. While keeping your children clean (preferably with natural soap) is important, there is such a thing as “too clean.” It kills off bacteria before your child’s immune system can learn how to respond accordingly — and contact with microbes is necessary for a fledgling immune system to learn to be effective.
There is a wealth of scientific research to support Finlay’s viewpoint. For example, a study published in 2015 revealed that children raised in homes with dogs were less likely to develop asthma. Another study of Swedish children revealed that kids who grew up on farms also had a decreased risk of developing asthma.
New York Daily News reported that Dr. Clifford W. Bassett, medical director, Allergy and Asthma Care of NY and a professor at NYU and Cornell Medical College commented, “It appears farm environments and rural environments and exposure to farm animals may lead to a more healthy or robust immune system and in some studies appears to be setting the stage to reducing asthma.” Basset was very familiar with earlier studies that had unveiled similar findings.
Many other studies have indicated that early exposure to microbes helps to prevent a wide range of conditions. A study published in 2012 by the journal Science found that germ-free early years could be setting the stage for a host of different diseases. They compared normal mice to mice that were raised in germ-free conditions. The germ-free mice exhibited substantially higher levels of invariant natural killer T cells (iNKT) — a special type of white blood cell — in their lungs and intestines.
The proteins released by iNKT cells are known to cause inflammation and attract more inflammatory white blood cells. Many of the autoimmune conditions described above feature inflammation as a primary player in the onset of disease.
Additionally, iNKT cells are considered to be an “active ingredient” in asthma, a condition that affects the lungs, and ulcerative colitis, which is an inflammatory bowel disease.
Dennis Lee Kasper, study researcher, a senior physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, told LiveScience that one of the most significant differences between the two groups of mice was the increase in susceptibility to autoimmune disease. “The germ-free mice were much more susceptible to the diseases than the germ-exposed mice,” Kasper commented.
While this research was conducted on animals, other research continues to show that the same is likely true for human children. Finlay says that the scientific research showing a link between decreased microbial diversity and the rise of disease in the Western world continues to mount. He notes that early childhood exposure seems to be particularly important.
“For the poor germophobe mothers out there,” says Finlay. “I feel sorry for them because they’re trying to do the very best.”
“We’ve been told keeping your kids clean is the best thing you can do for them. But unfortunately the science is now telling us it’s not the best thing to do.”
Finlay suggests that parents can be a little more lax with their children’s cleanliness — within reason, of course. Finlay’s message is simple: your kids don’t need to be sanitized every time they touch something or get dirt on their hands.