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Dirt for health?

Dr. Ruebush, the “Why Dirt Is Good” author, does not suggest a return to filth. But she correctly points out that bacteria are everywhere: on us, in us and all around us. Most of these micro-organisms cause no problem, and many, like the ones that normally live in the digestive tract and produce life-sustaining nutrients, are essential to good health.

“The typical human probably harbours some 90 trillion microbes,” she wrote. “The very fact that you have so many microbes of so many different kinds is what keeps you healthy most of the time.”

Dr. Ruebush deplores the current fetish for the hundreds of antibacterial products that convey a false sense of security and may actually foster the development of antibiotic-resistant, disease-causing bacteria. Plain soap and water are all that are needed to become clean, she noted.

In answer to the question, “Are we too clean?” Dr. Elliott said: “Dirtiness comes with a price. But cleanliness comes with a price, too. We’re not proposing a return to the germ-filled environment of the 1850s. But if we properly understand how organisms in the environment protect us, maybe we can give a vaccine or mimic their effects with some innocuous stimulus.”

In studies of what is called the hygiene hypothesis, researchers are concluding that organisms like the millions of bacteria, viruses and especially worms that enter the body along with “dirt” spur the development of a healthy immune system. Several continuing studies suggest that worms may help to redirect an immune system that has gone awry and resulted in autoimmune disorders, allergies and asthma.

These studies, along with epidemiological observations, seem to explain why immune system disorders like multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma and allergies have risen significantly in the United States and other developed countries.

Training the Immune System

“What a child is doing when he puts things in his mouth is allowing his immune response to explore his environment,” Mary Ruebush, a microbiology and immunology instructor, wrote in her new book, “Why Dirt Is Good” (Kaplan). “Not only does this allow for ‘practice’ of immune responses, which will be necessary for protection, but it also plays a critical role in teaching the immature immune response what is best ignored.”

One leading researcher, Dr. Joel V. Weinstock, the director of gastroenterology and hepatology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, said in an interview that the immune system at birth “is like an unprogrammed computer. It needs instruction.”

He said that public health measures like cleaning up contaminated water and food have saved the lives of countless children, but they “also eliminated exposure to many organisms that are probably good for us.”

“Children raised in an ultraclean environment,” he added, “are not being exposed to organisms that help them develop appropriate immune regulatory circuits.”

More: The New York Times
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