ask dr deborah



The Joy of Dirt

June 25, 2019

The gut biome (or environment) contains millions of microbes commonly referred to as germs, but germs get a bad rap. There is an abundance of good bacteria that does everything from digest food and participates in one’s mental faculties, to facilitating a host of other bodily functions too complicated to describe here. This is why people eat yogurt, drink fermented beverages, and take probiotics — in order to regain the good bacteria killed off along with those nasty microbes that cause illness.

The problem is that our good microbes are our only defense against viruses and nasty bacteria that our body doesn’t need.  It is a balancing act that can go haywire if we don’t expose our kids to dirt and dirty things! Good microbes are found everywhere in nature – in the dirt we try to avoid making contact with, in fermented food, on the surfaces of plants, animals, and virtually everything else. The question is whether it is better to allow some bad germs in order for some probiotics to get into the gut, as well. This raises fear in mothers who try their best to keep their child germ-free. We fear illness like the plague (no pun intended) but we also know that our immune system needs to be exposed to viruses and germs in order to stay on alert. Of course, no one likes to see one’s child suffer from a nasty cold, but the question remains – are we over sanitizing our child’s world?

When we use hand sanitizer, clean our fruits and vegetables, dishes, clothing, bathe and wash our hair, clean surfaces and windows, and use antibiotics are we overdoing it? For one thing, we pass this germ phobic sensibility on to our children who may become so obsessed with cleanliness that they compulsively wash their hands, change their clothing, or avoid what they may perceive as yucky substances, all of which may become a real problem during the potty learning years.

Of course, when your LO decides that some trash on the street looks interesting and tries to eat it we redirect them but it may be important to remember that there a goodness in allowing children to play in the dirt or with things found in the garden, the park, or the forest. Perhaps eating an occasional bug, flower petal, or leaf could actually be good for them, mentally, physically, and spiritually in the long run.

Written by Dr. Deborah Groening-Rother, child therapist and founder of Well Baby Center, a parenting and counseling center located in Mar Vista.