7 Ways Dirt Is A Powerful Immune System Booster

The Farm Effect: How Dirt Makes You Happy and Healthy

7 Ways Dirt Is A Powerful Immune System Booster

Posted by Christiane Northrup, M.D.


Dirt is not just good for children. We all need a little need dirt in our lives! — Christiane Northrup, M.D.

When was the last time you had dirt embedded under your fingernails or mud oozing between your toes? If it was recently, then good for you! Research over the last decade or so has shown that the microbes and bacteria in dirt can help boost your immune system and make you healthier and even happier.

Unfortunately, most people today have become germophobic, using germ-killing wipes, hand sanitizers, and even strong chemicals to clean their homes. But, it turns out that dirt has an important immune strengthening purpose.

How Dirt Strengthens Our Immune System

A study published in the June 2012 issue of The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology shows that Amish children who live on farms have about a 50% reduction in asthma, allergies, and gut-related disorders compared to children who grow up in more sterile environments.

This is known as “the Farm-Effect.” What’s interesting to note is that seasonal hay fever was first described in the United States in the 1890’s, and by 1920 it was quite common. However, hay fever was rarely diagnosed in the working class population, particularly those living on farms.

The Farm Effect is the corollary — or positive proof — of the “Hygiene Hypothesis,” which states that a lack of early childhood exposure to infectious agents, microorganisms and parasites increases our susceptibility to allergic diseases by suppressing the natural development of our immune systems. (The Hygiene Hypothesis has also been called the “Biome Depletion Theory” and the “Lost Friends Theory.”)

This makes perfect sense. As humans we have co-evolved for millions of years with microbes and parasites, both around and within our bodies. From the time a child is able to crawl, she intuitively knows to get dirty and to put dirty objects in her mouth — it’s a natural way of allowing her immune system to explore her environment. 

This routine exposure to harmless microorganisms in the environment, such as soil bacteria, trains her immune system to ignore benign molecules, such as pollen. (By the way, the Farm Effect works the same way for children who grow up with a dog or other pets in the house.)

But, dirt is not just good for children. We all need a little need dirt in our lives!

In fact, doctors are now handing out “park prescriptions” for a range of conditions including heart disease, obesity and ADD.

Dirt Has Been Called the New Prozac

Soil microbes called Mycobacterium vaccae are proven to have a natural antidepressant effect on the brain.

Lack of serotonin has been linked to disorders such as depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar and more. Studies show that Mycobacterium vaccae actually mirror the effect that drugs, such as Prozac, have on the brain without the side effects or chemical dependency.

In one study, lung cancer patients injected with Mycobacterium vaccae reported a better quality of life and less stress. This may mean that Mycobacterium vaccae works by stimulating serotonin production, which makes you feel relaxed and happy.

Another interesting bit of research suggests that the brain actually releases dopamine when we harvest food from the garden! This is known as “Harvest High.” Harvest High most likely evolved over 200,000 years ago when hunting and gathering was a means of survival.

When our ancestors found food, a flush of dopamine would release in the reward center of their brains. This means our primitive brains were originally wired to crave healthy foods from the soil. By the way, that same dopamine high – which is similar to the high some people get from drugs or shopping (“retail therapy,”) but is actually healthy for you and your wallet — can be triggered simply by seeing or smelling fresh produce!

6 More Reasons to Get Dirty

If getting dirty makes you happy, what else might it do? Well, it turns out dirt is good for you in more ways than one. Here are some reasons to get dirty:

  1. Being “dirt happy” lowers your blood pressureand stress hormones.
  2. Mycobacterium vaccaein soil can improve cognitive function, as well as symptoms associated with Crohn’s disease and even rheumatoid arthritis.
  3. Bacteria on your skin can help manage inflammatory skin conditions such as psoriasis, and can even heal wounds.
  4. Gardening (and other dirty outdoor activities) engages your senses. Research shows that when multiple senses are stimulated, the brain is more likely to remember things and is better able to solve problems.
  5. If you’re playing in the dirt, chances are you’re outside (unless you have a kiddie pool full of dirt in your living room.) This means you are getting sunshine, which is full-spectrum light. Full-spectrum light stimulates production of Vitamin D and serotonin. It also regulates the production of melatonin, helping you get a good night’s sleep.
  6. Children who play outside become more adventurous and self-motivated and use their imagination more. They are also better able to understand and assess risk because playing in nature lets them explore in ways that they can ask questions, make observations and see outcomes. For example, “What if I put water on a pine cone?” “What changes if I put the pine cone in the hot sun?”

How You Can Create The Farm Effect Anywhere

While many of us don’t live on farms or large plots of land these days, there are ways you can create a modifiedFarm Effect in your body and in your home, no matter where you live.

  1. Stop using antibacterial soaps and detergents.These kill healthy bugs off and can actually produce a breeding ground for antibiotic-resistant and disease-causing bacteria. Try using natural cleaning solutions.
  2. Clean Up Your Diet. It sounds counterintuitive when I am talking about getting dirty, but getting clean in your diet means getting rid of the harmful chemicals and additives (including sugar!) that children, especially, get in massive amounts.  Learn to read labels, including the labels and side-effect profiles on any medications you and your children are taking. Read the game-changing book, The Dirt Cure, by integrative pediatric neurologist Maya Shetreat-Klein, M.D. for a nutrition plan that can help your kids and your entire family prevent chronic disease.
  3. Purchase organic, seasonal fruits and vegetablesfrom your local farmer’s market. Rinse your food, but don’t scrub off all of the healthy dirt. If you can’t get to farmer’s market regularly, invest in a weekly organic community-supported agriculture (CSA) box.
  4. Garden with your kids.If your child is very young, you don’t even need to plant anything. She will love just having some dirt to play in. If you live in an apartment or have a small lot, create an organic window garden. You can actually grow more than you realize in really small areas by using one-pot containers. Strawberry pots are also great. You could even try hanging pots by your windows.
  5. Use the best soil you can afford.Buy or create healthy soil with organics before planting and avoid using chemicals in your garden. Studies show that glyphosate (the active ingredient of Roundup,) depletes serotonin and dopamine levels in mammals. Glyphosate and other Roundup ingredients stay in the environment, including our soil and water, the plants we eat, and ultimately in our cells. Glyphosate residues have even been found in clothes made from Roundup-ready GM cotton.  This can absorb directly into your skin, nervous and circulatory systems! Read Farmacology: Total Health from the Ground Up by Daphne Miller, MD, which explores the idea that it’s the farm where food is grown that offers us the real medicine.
  6. Explore nature.Go walking or hiking. Put your bare feet in the earth and in streams. If you have children or grandchildren, you can have a great time studying nature. You could even start a collection of rocks or leaves. Make each outing about adding to your collection. Read The Last Child In the Woods by Richard Louv, to learn more about what he calls “Nature-Deficit Disorder,” and how the health of our children and the health of the Earth are inseparable.
  7. Take Up A Mud Sport.Playing in the mud allows you to feel a sense of freedom and it’s an opportunity to act like a child again. Mud runs, mountain biking, and hiking are a few good options.  If sports aren’t your thing, consider a “mud pack” with organic soil.  You can go to a day spa or do this at home.
  8. Eat Fermented Foods and Take a Daily Probiotic. Even if you are eating food from healthy soil, in today’s hyper-hygienic and chemically-ridden world it’s important to continually restore beneficial gut bacteria.
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