Sunday, August 3, 2008

Do you want healthy children? Then let them get dirty!

When my son was in elementary school, I helped coach his baseball team, the Bulldogs. Our players were younger, smaller and less experienced than the players on the other teams so everyone expected us to finish in last place. But what these kids lacked in size and experience they more than made up for in spirit, determination and heart. They were scrappy, they played hard and they had a blast. After the first few practices a team motto emerged: “Get Dirty!” Parents used to joke that soon we wouldn’t have a field to practice on because the players wore most of the field home with them. To everybody’s amazement, except ours, we ended up being one of the best teams in the league. At the end of the season the players presented me with two autographed baseballs. On one were penned the words, “Coach Mark, Get Dirty!” It was signed by Maury Wills who used to play for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers, and is considered one of the greatest base runners in the history of the game. In fact, he was the first player to steal more than 100 bases in a single season, breaking Ty Cobb’s record that was almost 50 years old. Maury Wills was a guy who liked to get dirty. The second – and most important – of the two autographed baseballs said, “To Coach Mark, Get Dirty!” and was signed by all of the Bulldogs.

Getting dirty on the baseball diamond, rolling around in the grass, and wet, sloppy puppy kisses help children build natural immunity. As kids are exposed to microbes from a variety of sources, their immune systems respond by developing a broad range of antibodies. These continuing challenges strengthen developing immune systems just as pumping iron builds six pack abs and rippling biceps on body builders.

In fact, keeping our kids too squeaky clean can actually lead to diminished immune capacity and poorer health. In the late 1990’s a hypothesis known as the Hygiene Hypothesis emerged which supports this point. A German health researcher named Dr. Erika von Mutius set out to show that children who grew up in the poorer, dirtier cities of East Germany developed more allergies than their counterparts in West Germany. When she compared the disease rates between the two countries she found just the opposite. Dr. Von Mutius concluded that children in East Germany had fewer allergies precisely because they were exposed more to other kids, animals…and dirt. Studies since then have shown that kids who live on farms, have pets, come from larger families or start day care at a younger age have a much lower incidence of asthma than other kids. Another report tells us that the more often kids catch colds during their early years, the less likely they are to develop asthma later on. When kids are exposed to common bacteria, their immune systems are able to mature the way Nature designed them to. Their immune systems are on the front lines maintaining their edge while the immune systems of kids in overly clean environments are kicking back all day and letting themselves get soft and weak.

Of course good hygiene is important; just try not to take it too far. Teach your kids to wash their hands before meals but resist the temptation to hustle them to the sink and slather them with antibacterial soap every time they pet the neighbor’s cat. Our well-intentioned attempts to shield our kids from every cootie in the neighborhood deprives them of essential opportunities to develop a robust immune system.

So, believe it or not, germs can be good for you! The next time your kids come in from playing outside, check their hands. If they are too clean, tell them, “Young lady, young man; you march right back outside and when you come back in I had better see some dirt under those fingernails.”

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