What’s Under Your Fingernails? The Value of Dirt
Did you play in the dirt, in the mud, when you were a child? Perhaps you still like to play in the dirt, you just call it gardening? I imagine you know by now: all that exposure to dirt is good for you. The dirt is just one source of microbes we rely on for good health. Other sources are as cuddly as house pets or as seemingly hazardous as a barnyard full of different animals, their feed, discarded fur and feathers, and even their excrement. Microbes are the smallest forms of life on our planet, visible only through a microscope. They were on the planet long before humans appeared, yet we are just beginning to explore their complex value to our own life and health.
In sheer quantity, we must give a nod to bacteria. They outnumber us one by one, in our own bodies and on the planet. Bundle up and weigh all the microbes and they outweigh the earth’s plant and animal residents. Microbes inhabit the most intimate and the most remote parts of the planet, living in environments as wide ranging as your skin, your internal organs, the harsh terrain of Antarctica and bubbling hydrothermal cauldrons near geysers and deep in the ocean.
The only germ-free moments of your life were spent in your mother’s womb, and your first and greatest gift from your mom was a journey through the birth canal and a coating of protective bacteria that confers amazing benefits. It has been observed by some, if not fully understood, that babies born via c-section face increased health risks ranging from acute illness in childhood to greater prevalence of obesity and diabetes as adults. Way before we fully understand whether or not this is true, a safe “cover your bases” practice has developed in which a mom, following a cesarean birth, can gently swab her newborn with a cloth exposed to birth canal secretions.
The microbes of greatest value to each of us are those present not in but on our own bodies: on our skin, on the surfaces of our respiratory tract, and inside our digestive tract, mostly living in our large intestine. Remember that your digestive tract is actually outside the sterile workings of your body, allowing you to swallow food, digest its nutrients (with the help of friendly microbes) and excrete the unusable remnants of that food. The nutrients can traverse the single cell layer of your intestinal tract, but larger items (such as intact proteins) should stay in the gut unless you have an abnormal increase in intestinal permeability. (If you want to discuss this with your doctor, be sure to use the term “intestinal permeability” which has lots of validating research; if you use the shorthand “leaky gut,” you might be told it is a concept rooted in quackery. Let’s chat next month about intestinal permeability and how that affects us.)
Back to bacteria: friendly bacteria do everything from boost our immune systems, to orchestrating the production of neurotransmitters, and constantly sustaining a defense against unfriendly bacteria. Your best defense against a yeast or a staph infection is to have abundant colonies of non-problematic yeast and thriving “good” bacteria on your skin and in your nose.
There are of course unfriendly bacteria. The best way to encounter them is in small doses (that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger), careful doses (I just brush the dirt off carrots from my own garden, but I wash the ones from the store), and all this within a healthy body, with optimal levels of blood sugar (not too high) and vitamin D (not too low) and other nutrients.
Read more of Dr. Deborah’s healthy insights at www.DrDeborahMD.com.