Let your Kids Eat Dirt: The Immune System & Balance

With the spread of the Covid virus, it’s becoming second nature to sanitize and sterilize any surface that we come in contact with.This, of course, is important to keep ourselves and others safe from this new virus but what is the impact that these measures are having on our children’s developing immune system?

The Hygiene Hypothesis

Many parents believe that children must be kept in an environment that is as sterile as possible, but some research suggests that being exposed to what many would call ‘unclean’ conditions is actually good for a child’s immune system.  This researched based theory is called the hygiene hypothesis and it states that if a child’s environment is too clean then that lack of exposure to germs does not give the immune system a chance to develop resistance to a disease.  This theory was first introduced in the late 1980’s, where it was discovered that children from larger families had fewer instances of hay fever because they were exposed to germs from older siblings.   Further research in the 1990’s found that children who grew up in dirtier conditions had lower allergic reactions and fewer cases of asthma than those who grew in in more sterile conditions.

The Developing Immune System

When babies were in the womb, the mom’s antibodies provided all the protection they needed and so they are born with a relatively weak immune system.   For the immune system to develop, it must be trained to fight off contaminants found in everyday life. If one of the important defense systems is not trained through exposure to germs, then another part of our immune system overcompensates and creates allergic reactions, eczema and the development of asthma. So what’s the bottom line of this information?  Our kids need to get dirty!

Strike a Balance

The conflict between cleanliness and exposure to germs can leave parents feeling confused.   There are many microbes that can make our children very sick.  So cleaning the home is still very important but let’s talk about the kinds of contaminants that kids can be exposed to without a lot of risk.    For starters, dirt is good (as long as there are no pesticides or chemical fertilizer in it).   Especially during this time of social distancing when children are not being exposed to germs through their friends, get them outside and encourage them to get their hands dirty in the mud.  Exposures to cats, dogs and other farm animals have a very positive effect on children’s developing immune system.  If you don’t have any pets nearby, visit a farm or a petting farm.  When that pacifier falls on the floor it’s okay to lick it off and pop it right back into their mouth.

What about Hand Sanitizer?

In some situations, hand sanitizer can’t be avoided but my advice is to try to be choosy about the situations that it’s being used in. Using warm, soapy water is always a better option when available.   When you do have to sanitize, consider avoiding certain toxic ingredients, including triclosan, phthalates, sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and parabens.  There are many eco-brand sanitizers that are safe and effective at killing off unwanted microbes.

Diet is important too!

What our kids consume goes a long way in terms of supporting a developing immune system and exposure to some pathogens is important here too!  Fermented foods, like kombucha, kefir, old fashioned ginger beer, homemade yogurt, and sauerkraut are some examples that many kids enjoy.  They have ‘good bacteria’ that help to train the developing immune system.  Offer a variety of food choices that come from the ground and are colourful, like tomatoes, bell peppers, broccoli, purple cabbage, and kale.   Shop at farmers markets for local, organic produce, which provides exposure to more variety of contaminants in the soil it’s grown in.   And reduce the processed foods that come in boxes and packages as they are usually packed with sugar, which is really hard on the immune system.

It’s an interesting time that we are living in but the take home message is that we don’t have to be afraid of our kids getting a little dirty.  Their immune systems need the exposure, especially now.

Courtney Babcock, Naturopathic Doctor

Courtney Babcock’s goal is to educate and empower her patients to make choices that optimize how they feel and work within their lifestyle. Dr. Babcock has a special interest in paediatric health and development and pre/post natal care. She believes in an integrative approach to healthcare. You can read more about her here. 

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