I just love reading an article like this. How many times do you sit down at meal with your kids, having forgotten to remind then to wash their hands (or to physically wash their hands yourself, in my case)? For me, it’s almost every meal. It’s just one detail I repeatedly forget. I’m not proud of this.
So I read with great interest this article from the New York Times about dirt, worms and the immune system. I’d heard of the hygiene hypothesis, where studies are showing that interactions with bacteria and viruses actually support the development of a strong immune system, and lessen the likelihood of allergies and asthma. This hypothesis is gaining momentum. Apparently, exposures from birth on are helpful in development of the immune system (and perfectly natural– how many of you have seen your baby sucking on your shoe? Or mouthing your keys?).
According to the New York Times article: “One leading researcher, Dr. Joel V. Weinstock, the director of gastroenterology and hepatology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, said in an interview that the immune system at birth “is like an unprogrammed computer. It needs instruction.”
He said that public health measures like cleaning up contaminated water and food have saved the lives of countless children, but they “also eliminated exposure to many organisms that are probably good for us.”
“Children raised in an ultraclean environment,” he added, “are not being exposed to organisms that help them develop appropriate immune regulatory circuits.”
The doctors recommend “washing in moderation.” (Did I mention I love this article?) We know the chemicals (like tricolosan) in most antibacterial soaps are bad for the environment and for people, and can lead to more resistant strains of bacteria. Here are the recommendations for parents (get ready to let out a sigh of relief):
Dr. Ruebush, a microbiology and immunology instructor, who wrote a new book, “Why Dirt Is Good” said, “I certainly recommend washing your hands after using the bathroom, before eating, after changing a diaper, before and after handling food,” and whenever they’re visibly soiled, she wrote. When no running water is available and cleaning hands is essential, she suggests an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
Dr. Weinstock goes even further. “Children should be allowed to go barefoot in the dirt, play in the dirt, and not have to wash their hands when they come in to eat,” he said. He and Dr. Elliott pointed out that children who grow up on farms and are frequently exposed to worms and other organisms from farm animals are much less likely to develop allergies and autoimmune diseases.
Also helpful, he said, is to “let kids have two dogs and a cat,” which will expose them to intestinal worms that can promote a healthy immune system.”
So free yourself from hand washing guilt, some of the time. I still try to remember to wash their hands before meals, but if I forget, it is not that big of a deal. It will make them stronger!
(originally published on Eco-Child’s Play)
Image: spoonful of dirt by fortune cookie on Flickr under Creative Commons