Thoughts on health, happiness and sustainability

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Should we eat dirt?

When I was growing up, my mum used to be horrified when I’d be drinking from the water bottle on my mountain bike with the mouthpiece covered in mud.  Somehow it didn’t really bother me though. I just thought that a bit of dirt never did anyone any harm and that if anything, it would make my immune system stronger. As I got older, I began to think that our lack of exposure to dirt and germs could be part of the reason for increases in allergies and perhaps other illnesses.  We sanitise everything –  washing our vegetables and cleaning our homes and ourselves with wet wipes, antibacterial sprays, and soaps designed to kill 99.99% of all known bacteria.

Since then, our society has only become more obsessed with killing germs everywhere.  I believe this is a mistake though, and although intended to protect us from germs, they could well do more harm than good in a lot of cases.  Of course there are harmful germs that we need to be cautious of, but simple precautions would be more appropriate than outright germ warfare.  Firstly, many of these cleaning chemicals are probably harmful in their own way.  A chemical that can kill 99.99% of all known bacteria is probably capable of killing other things too.  Secondly, we are partially made of bacteria ourselves and good bacteria is central to our immune systems, so we don’t want to kill all bacteria.

But I think there is a bigger concept that we are missing. We tend to think of our immune systems as something we’re just given. Some people’s are better than others and sometimes our immune systems get strengthened or weakened by outside factors, but generally speaking it’s something that we take for granted.  The immune system is just something that we all have and it works quietly in the background doing its thing.

We need to change the way that we think about the immune system and think about our it just like any other part of our body. Use it or lose it!

It’s well established that moderate exercise keeps the body fit and healthy.  Without exercise, your body wastes away.  The same is true of mental stimulation and the health of the brain.  Yet we rarely seem to think about our immune systems on the same way, despite the fact that the concept of vaccination works on exactly this principle.

We need to gently exercise our immune systems every day in exactly the same way that we exercise our muscles, our aerobic system and our minds in order to build strength and longevity.

Exposure to small amounts of germs and dirt around the home and outdoors give our immune systems the exercise that they need to stay active and robust. By sterilizing our lives to protect ourselves from germs, we weaken our immune systems to the the point that we cannot cope when we do encounter germs, which serves only to compound the problem because then we respond with more sterilisation and pharmaceuticals that fight the immediate threat but weaken us further in the long term.

So why not try getting a bit more dirty? Start giving your immune system some gentle exercise by throwing out that bottle hand sanitizer gel that you’ve been carrying around, using some simple old fashioned, non-toxic cleaning products around the house, and best of all, get yourself a bit dirty once in awhile.

Photo credit: Thanks to Christian Guthier for the photo of the Jerusalem Artichokes.

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