Got the Blues? Get in the Dirt!
The Amazing Science of How Dirt Can Make You Happy
Bacteria are lurking everywhere... doorknobs, handshakes, your kid's runny nose, grandma's kisses. Those little buggers are just waiting to pounce and destroy, causing everything from ear infections to food poisoning, boils to meningitis and everything in between. There's only one thing to do: destroy them before they destroy you.
PURELL, PURELL, PURELL.
CIPRO, AMOXICILLIN, TETRACYCLINE.
AND PLEASE, GET OUT OF THE DIRT!
But wait, is it possible that in our quest to be germ free, we've gone too far? Are all bacteria created equal? Even if it were possible, do we really want to avoid all of them?
For starters, there are 100 trillion (that's 3 pounds!) of microorganisms in your gut. And there's an ever growing body of research demonstrating just how important these little critters are to our health. Imbalances in the "gut microbiome" has been linked to the rise in allergies, digestive disorders, asthma, depression, auto-immune disease and autism just to name a few. Though the causes of these diseases are complex and multi-factorial, there is overwhelming evidence that what's living in your intestines has an enormous impact on your health. As a side note, please talk to your doctor to see if those antibiotics are really necessary, or if there are other options that don't include killing off your gut's good bacteria. If you do need them, consider taking a probiotic and some good quality yogurt, kefir or fermented foods to help restore the healthy gut flora.
So where does the dirt come in?
Dr. Mary O'Brien, an oncologist in London injected a certain killed strand of bacteria into patients with lung cancer. The bacteria was called Mycobacterium vaccae (pronounced "vah-kay", not to be confused with, "I can't wait to go on vay-kay"). Anyway, she found that the patients had fewer symptoms related to lung cancer. She also found that their mood and cognition improved, and not as a result of a better outlook due to improved physical symptoms.
Still not seeing the dirt connection? Lo and behold, M. vaccae is a common, harmless bacteria found in... you guessed it, the dirt!
Dr. Chris Lowry, a scientist at Bristol University, decided to further investigate the reason for the increase in mood related to the inoculations, so he injected M. vaccae into some mice. He found that the injections triggered a specific type of immune response that led to the brain producing more serotonin. That's like the benefits of Prozac without the side effects. The increase in serotonin led to mice that were less stressed and performed better on a swim test as compared to mice not given the injection. (I'm not saying they mastered the back stroke, but still impressive). Dr. Lowry states more research is needed to see if this bacteria could be used clinically, but ponders if humans need to spend more time in the dirt.
So, is it possible that after tens of thousands of years of humans being in constant close contact with the earth and its many microorganisms, we have evolved to live more optimally when we maintain that connection? Does our modern lifestyle remove us a little too far from mother nature? Have we developed an unhealthy obsession with "clean" and infiltrated our culture with a fear of dirt? Even the word "dirty" has a negative connotation, as do numerous idioms in the English language, such as: "common as dirt" (low class), "dig some dirt up on someone" (found out something bad about someone), "dish the dirt" (gossip), "do something dirty" (to do something dishonest), "throw dirt enough and some will stick" (if you say enough bad things about someone, it will eventually be believed) and "you have to eat a peck of dirt before you die" (everyone must endure some hardships in life). Should we change our cultural paradigm of how we view and interact with dirt? Perhaps we should all be eating a few pecks of dirt.
Further reading: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/6509781.stm