It’s a Dirty Little World out There!

DSCN0339“Merda dl mond fesc il cul turond” No, it’s not Italian, nor German, nor English. This is Ladin, the language that is spoken in my home town in the Dolomites where we have an old saying, “The dirt from the world makes your [butt] cheeks grow round”; not obese, but nice and healthy.  Given the research coming out today, it would appear my hometown got it right: a little less cleanliness goes a long way towards making your immune system grow healthy and strong.  Read on to learn more… Come and eat dirt with us!

In a recent book called “An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Disease” the author, Moises Velasquez-Manoff, argues that our modern obsession with bacteria and germs has backfired. The author’s hypothesis is that in an effort to sanitize our way to healthiness, we are eradicating the good bacteria with the bad, and the lack of “harmless” bacteria in our systems is causing us to develop a myriad of immune-related diseases such as allergies, asthma, arthritis, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis and diabetes. Where are the harmless bacteria going, you ask?  They are being killed, along with the bad bacteria, by our cleanliness.

The author has consulted over 10,000 studies and he has concluded from this research that the human body is a “super-organism” consisting of billions of smaller organisms, most of them intestinal microbes. (A topic we have written about in the past). According to his hypothesis, “altering the number of bacteria in the body, whether with sanitary measures, antibiotics or deworming pills, is analogous to fooling around with the liver or the spleen.” Intuitively this makes sense. The delicate balance that is the human body requires harmony to work properly.  Unfortunately, in this day and age there really is no way to fully avoid being clean; but one way to regain some of the good bacteria is by making healthier food choices such as including probiotic foods in our diet, or opting for the less than squeaky- clean produce options you might find in the farmers’ market.

If cleanliness is a habit you are having a hard time breaking, consider this article published in the New York Times this summer where Jeff Leach outlines the many reasons why dirt is good. His arguments are compelling and they’ve convinced us to pitch cleanliness to the wayside, at least in some instances. This doesn’t mean that we refuse to wash our hands, but we have replaced our range of ‘anti-bacterical’ cleaning products with cleaners that are more natural, and we rely more on good immune systems built through the consumption of healthy good food to keep us well.

The science behind the view that we are cleaning our way to poor health is very complex, but intriguing enough that many prestigious institutions are working hard to get it straight. The research that grabs me, particularly, has to do with culture; autoimmune and allergic conditions are much more frequent in rich countries where families live in spotlessly clean houses, rather than in poor ones where the food comes straight from the garden. Researchers refer to this as the “farm effect”. It isn’t clear if it is the work in the barn and the dirt, the exposure to large animals such as cows or the consumption of raw diary products that does the trick, but the effect is real and compelling.

So whether you subscribe to fecotherapy (and yes, it is exactly what you think it is) or if you are interested in infecting yourself with a intestinal worm, know that when you think you’re at the fore-front of science, you are living by the rule that the farmers in my valley knew all along: a little dirt goes a long way to keeping you healthy!

PS: The picture is of a small farm in South Tyrol we regularly visited as children.

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