A few months ago I wrote about the hygiene hypothesis, which states that regular exposure to things we consider “dirty” (germs, bacteria, viruses, etc.) can help strengthen the immune system and protect against allergies later in life. As the body is challenged with small assaults, the immune system develops tolerance. As a result, it doesn’t respond to inoffensive agents (such as pollen) in an exaggerated manner later in life.
The problem is, with our overly clean lifestyles these days (antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers, avoidance of getting “dirty,” etc.) our bodies no longer have a chance to build up a tolerance early in life. As a result, our immune systems have shifted toward overblown responses, such as allergies and asthma, to otherwise harmless things.
Simply put, many of the things we do to keep ourselves clean in an effort to stay healthy and disease free may actually be backfiring.
Getting Your Hands Dirty Is Beneficial
Along those same lines, I recently came across a very interesting study that shows just how beneficial exposing yourself to dirt—literally, dirt—can really be.
This study found that exposure to a common bacterium found in soil—mycobacterium vaccae (MV)—can help reduce stress and resulting inflammation. This is important because long-term inflammation in the body increases the risk of a number of degenerative diseases, including heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes. Poor or harmful lifestyle habits—one of them being uncontrolled, long-term stress—very often contribute to chronic systemic inflammation.
Previous research has found that the MV bacterial strain can lessen anxiety and depression and even help to treat stubborn tuberculosis infections. In this current study, researchers grew MV in a lab, then killed it with heat and injected it into mice, much like a vaccine.
The researchers then observed the mice to see how it affected them physically and how they dealt with stressors. After one to two weeks, the treated mice had stronger immune systems and reduced risk of stress-induced colitis (inflammation in the colon). Maze testing also showed that they coped with stress much better than untreated mice.
Reap the Benefits of MV
Fortunately, you don’t need to eat wait for a vaccine like the one used in the study to get these friendly bacteria into your system. All you need to do is go to your own backyard (or local park) and get your hands a little dirty. The simple act of digging your hands in the soil and even breathing in the particles in the air exposes you to enough of the MV strain to confer health benefits.
One of the best and most rewarding ways to do this is through gardening. As any gardener will tell you, it is a sensory experience that enhances well-being on every level—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. Beyond the benefits already discussed, gardening can be a good physical workout. Digging, planting, weeding, hoeing, and raking can build up upper body strength, and squatting can work out your lower body.
(And let’s not forget that the fruits and vegetables you grow yourself are pretty much the freshest, most delicious and nutritious food you will ever eat.)
This summer, I encourage you to not be afraid to get your hands a little dirty. Even a little exposure to the beneficial microbes in our soils can have a long-lasting effect on your health and well-being.
- Reber SO, et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 May 31;113(22):E3130-9.
- Matthews DM and Jenks SM. Behav Processes. 2013 Jun;96:27-35.
- Went H, et al. Biomed Rep. 2016 May;4(5):595-600.