The immunological benefits of mud
When it comes to how children spend their time, the various benefits of playing outside are well established.
The great outdoors -
By ditching electronics and heading outdoors, kids have the opportunity to get some exercise, as well as gain some valuable learning experiences.
The modern reality -
In today’s urban world, there are many children who never play outside, and those who do often have parents who don’t like them getting dirty.
The downside -
Of course, it can be a pain for parents when their kids come home covered in mud, particularly if they carry it through the house.
The upside -
New research suggests, however, that exposure to dirt can have important benefits for our health. Of course, this idea is not new.
Falling out of favor -
This hypothesis quickly fell out of favor, however, since experts believed it discouraged important hygiene practices, such as handwashing.
Indeed, the hygiene hypothesis has been described as “quite problematic from a public health perspective.”
That does not mean, however, that all organisms we come across outside are detrimental to our health. In fact, quite the opposite is true.
Friendly bacteria -
Experts now believe that the non-infectious organisms we come into contact with while in nature are very beneficial to our immune system.
Old friends -
Referred to by scientists as “old friends,” these organisms have been around throughout our evolutionary history and are generally harmless.
Childhood exposure - This is because their childhood exposure to a wider range of organisms helped their immune systems learn to self-regulate more effectively.
Stress in today's world -
We may have evolved this way, but the reality is this inflammation is less useful for the kinds of stressors we are exposed to today.
Research shows that children who grew up in a rural setting tend to have a reduced inflammatory response to stressful events, such as public speaking.
Control factors -
This even remained true when researchers controlled for other factors, such as the children’s socioeconomic status.
Forest bathing -
One discipline that is gaining in popularity is "forest bathing," the act of talking a gentle, meditative walk through the woods.
Gardening at school -
The children were then given planting boxes for gardening, which encouraged further contact with the soil and all its friendly microbes.
Impact on inflammation -
The proportion of anti-inflammatory molecules in their blood plasma had also increased (which indicates a better regulated immune system).
All in all -
Getting a little dirty, then, is not a bad thing for a child. Playing outside is to be encouraged!