Most of us don’t remember much from our early years but ask just about any parent and they will tell you—kids eat a lot of dirt. And for every kid with a dirt-covered soother, mud-caked shoe or fistful of playground detritus in their mouth, there is an exhausted parent that hasn’t had enough sleep to do something about it.

“Well, at least they will have a strong immune system.”

And yet, bacteria has a bad reputation. We wash our bodies with anti-bacterial soap, scrub our hands with anti-bacterial cleanser, wash our kitchen countertops with anti-bacterial wipes and take antibiotics for every sniffle, sore throat and cough.

The problem is that in an effort to protect our health from bad bacteria, we end up killing off much of the good bacteria that help us digest food, absorb vitamins, minerals and other nutrients and actually protect us from that bad bacteria. Science is starting to understand that our bodies need good bacteria to be healthy, lending support to what tired parents have always known.

It all has to do with our microbiome. The microbiome is our internal ecosystem, made up of millions of microorganisms, or microbes, that live in and on every inch of our bodies, from our finger tips to our tongues to our stomach linings. One of the most important microbe populations in our bodies is the one in our intestine, known as our gut microbiome.

As a result of our sanitation obsession, we have smaller numbers of microbes in our gut and fewer microbial species than ever before—especially when compared to other parts of the world. Research has shown that children living in urban and suburban areas of the United States have far less bacterial diversity in their gut than children in villages in Malawi, Venezuela or Bangladesh. There are a number of reasons for this but time spent in nature is attributed as one of them. Researchers have also found that children in Bavaria who grew up on farms and spent time in the farm fields, animal stables and pastures had more bacterial diversity than Bavarian children who did not grow up on farms.

One of the bacteria that is most often missing from our microbiomes is Mycobacterium vaccae, or M. vaccae. This bacteria, which is found in soil, used to be easy for us to take in because most of our food came out of the ground and went straight into our mouths. With the modern diet being so purified, processed and packaged, it has become much harder for us to take in this beneficial bacteria.

The scientific community has fallen in love with the microbiome, and especially the gut microbiome, because of the potential that it holds to strengthen our immune systems and improve many other aspects of our health. Research has shown that M. vaccae can support immune function, reduce inflammation, improve brain function, treat depression, enhance sleep and prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s. And that’s just one strain. It might seem like a stretch to say that issues like mental illness, heart disease, diabetes and joint pain are connected to your immune system and that your immune system is controlled by your gut bacteria but science says it’s far from a stretch.

So, the parent that can’t be bothered to wipe the dirt off their child’s face was right—eating dirt will give you a stronger immune system. Research even shows that the more beneficial bacteria we come in contact with during the first two years of our life, the healthier we will be as adults, which means that the toddler with the dirt-covered soother in his mouth had it right too, whether he knew it or not.

But putting dirt in your mouth isn’t the only way to boost your microbiome. Researchers in Japan arranged for study participants, who lived in cities and worked in offices, to spend a weekend in nature and measured the activity of immune system cells in the participants before and after the weekend. Not only did they find that immune system cells activity increased after the weekend but that this increased cell activity lasted for one month. In other words, spending even a couple days, just once a month, can support your immune system for the entire month. The researchers attributed these results to a couple of factors, one of which was breathing in the beneficial bacteria that drifts down from tree branches, stirs up from the ground and swirls around in the air when you walk through a forest.

Beneficial bacteria is all around us but there is nowhere you will find more of it than in nature. It’s in the air we breath, the leaves we touch, the branches that brush up against our shoulders, the flowers we smell and the berries we taste. And yes, it’s also on the dirt-covered soother your kid just put in their mouth.

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Last modified: July 6, 2018

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