STONE: Get dirty to boost immunity

Spring in West Texas is like no other. Amid the mostly pleasant temperatures and beautiful morning and evenings, we do … unfortunately, get our share of epic dust storms. The remnants leave our homes, patios and personal effects in a film of red, sandy dirt. As much of a disdain we have for all this dirt, the silver lining is that it does serve some benefit. Yep, you heard me, West Texas dirt can be a good thing. Vaccines certainly help build strong immune systems, but there’s one thing we miss out on in making ourselves even stronger, which is going outside and getting a little dirty from time to time.

While hand washing is important in preventing the spread of bacteria and other germs, we as a society have established an “over the top” mentality when it comes to anti-bacterial soaps, sanitizers and wipes. The thing is, not all bacteria are bad. In fact, our bodies are teeming with beneficial bacteria that help us function normally each and every day. Prime examples are those that make up our intestinal flora, which among other things, allow us to digest foods and absorb vitamins and minerals. Bottom line, we need exposure to certain bacteria and microorganisms to flourish. Starting from birth, our bodies are designed to “learn”, adapt and overcome foreign invaders through our various exposures to the elements. It’s the basic fundamental process in establishing a healthy and effective immune system.

However, over the years, we’ve moved away from enjoying the outdoors and transitioned into a preference to remain inside. Trapped in a hue of fluorescent lighting, ourselves (and especially our children) are protected far too much from the elements. Within our homes, we vacuum, change air filters, clean, scrub and sanitize every surface within reach. We create an environment in which we shelter ourselves from many of the very things our immune system needs to program itself in offering protection down the road. Without early exposure to these elements, by way of spending our time in overly clean environments, our bodies cannot adequately or effectively respond to conditions outside our “sterilized” environment. Allergies are a prime example of how our culture of cleanliness transcends from solving one problem to creating another.

According to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology, worldwide, the rise in prevalence of allergic diseases has continued in the industrialized world for more than 50 years. Yes, it is important to keep a clean home, wash your hands regularly and certainly stick with vaccination schedules, but make sure, as a parent, you also let your kids get dirty every now and then. In fact, go outside with them! Make it a point to insure they get outdoors, perhaps jump in mud puddles, roll around in the grass, play with worms or simply allow them to do what kids do. Experiencing the outdoors allows access to a plethora of beneficial bacteria, fungi and viruses to help immune systems grow stronger and flourish.

The benefits of playing outside and getting dirty may even extend beyond our immune system. The National Wildlife Federation states that studies have shown simply having contact with dirt, whether it’s through gardening, digging holes or making pies out of mud, can significantly improve a child’s mood and reduce their anxiety and stress. Not sure about you, but some therapeutic time in the dirt to positively affect one’s frame of mind sounds a lot better than taking medication to try and achieve the same effect. That’s enough reason to join in and get muddy and dirty with them.

Now’s the perfect time to peel away from our fluorescent, indoor prisons and enjoy the outdoors. Take the bubble wrap off yourself and your kids and go and be free. Plant and maintain a garden, run through the sprinklers or go camping. There’s a whole new world waiting for us outside, don’t be afraid to breathe in some fresh air and channel your inner wild side for the sake of a healthier you.