Our obsession with hygiene is harming our children's immune systems 4 weeks ago

Our obsession with hygiene is harming our children's immune systems

As a parent, it is our most important job to keep our children healthy and out of harm's way.

The thing is; this can seem a little overwhelming in a world where we through both regular and social media are bombarded with an endless list of dangers and illnesses that can threaten our children.

I mean; not a day goes by without some scary story emerging about anything from cancer, to autoimmune diseases like eczema or asthma to nut allergies, dairy intolerances, or behavioural disorders such as ADHD.

And so, in an attempt to keep our children from getting sick in any way we have largely become convinced that any kind of dirt and bacteria is bad and must be avoided at all cost. Something which becomes even more evident when you visit the cleaning aisle of any supermarket, where the shelves are packed with harsh chemical-laden products promising to sanitize and remove 99,9% of all the bacteria in your home.

Great, says you. Not so great at all says Dr Maya Shetreat-Klein, a pediatric neurologist and mother-of-three from New York, who, in her books Healthy Food, Healthy Gut, Happy Child and Dirt Cure argues that we are making our children sicker with our obsession with hygiene.

The books delve into research that suggests that spending time around farms, parks and other green spaces can benefit children in surprising ways, protecting against allergies, enhancing immune function and potentially even improving attention span and academic performance.

“Parents today are keeping their children away from the things that are critical to their health,” Shetreat-Klein explains to the New York Times.

"We are sanitising their lives with cleaning products, pesticides and antibiotics.”


In fact, recent research shows that children exposed to bleach actually have more, not fewer infections - including a 20 percent higher risk of coming down with the flu, she points out.

“Microbes, fresh food from healthy soil, and time spent in nature, can improve our children’s health immeasurably. No drug can do what being in the forest can.”

In recent years, it’s become clear that the millions of microbes we carry in our guts play a vital role in health and immunity, and the more diverse they are, the better.

“Healthy immune systems like to meet and greet a lot of different organisms and compounds - that is what keeps them healthy. When there are fewer organisms and compounds in our gut, the immune system starts turning its attention to attacking our food and the things it’s exposed to in the environment,” says Dr Shetreat-Klein.

In her book, she shows how the over-sanitisation of our lives is depriving our guts of the biodiversity that can be found in healthy soil, making us more susceptible to conditions like allergies.

“In one teaspoon of soil there are as many microbes as there are people on the planet,” she says. “That is an incredibly biodiverse experience for our brains, our immune systems, our guts.

“In fact, research shows that children who grow up on farms are less likely to have problems like allergies and asthma, not because there is more bacteria on farms but because the biodiversity of the bacteria in the soil they’re exposed to is tremendous.”

The importance of outdoor play

So while simply eating soil could not treat an allergy or disease, Shetreat-Klein believes early exposure to the microbes found in dirt could help fend off common childhood disorders.

"Eat food grown in rich organic, biodynamic soil which hasn’t been power washed to within an inch of its life, and help children to spend as much time as possible outside."

And let them get dirty!

“Encourage them to play in the dirt. Join them if you are so moved! Make mud pies, and don’t be afraid to take a bite or two,” she says.

“Spend hours a day in forests and parks, on mountains, and play sports on fields instead of astroturf.”