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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Eat Dirt: Seriously

We've all heard the term 'use it or lose it' but probably don't realize just how true that is.  It applies to brain function (speech, critical thinking, balance), physical movement...and guess what: our bowels.  The average adult harbors something like 1 pound of microbial critters in our intestines.  Don't let that gross you out, though: those bacteria, protazoa, fungi, and viruses are what actually digest our food.  And we should all remind ourselves that we are literally covered head-to-toe in microbes, too.  You might be "clean" the moment you get out of the shower, but it has been shown that there is a huge "bloom" of microbes a few minutes later as they reproduce and recolonize your skin.  It's supposed to be that way.

My family has always been a supporter of eating a bit of dirt and being dirty, especially for the young.  Evolutionarily, it's only natural to be filthy.  Plus, it's fun.  

This is me in 1985, covered in soil and compost after a morning of sifting compost with my dad.  When there's dirt to play in: play. When you're tired: sleep.  I used this photo in my qualifying exam to show my committee how dedicated I am to compost!

This is me in 1984 harvesting carrots as a tot. Us kids used to brush off as much dirt as we could and then just eat--so what if you end up with a little dirt on your teeth?  

Eddie and Rhubarb enjoying some fluffy mulch in the garden.

A naked Eddie sitting in a flower box full of soil.  I guess our chickens and child enjoy dust baths!
These pictures of Eddie and our dog make me realize, also, that humans probably also benefit from steady, lifelong exposure to animal microbes, too.  As animals ourselves, we evolved with companion animals and hunted wild ones (and without modern defeathering/deboning machinery, we had to touch all those animals with our hands...without antibacterial soap!  Gasp!).

This is all to say how happy I was to see a recent opinion piece in the New York Times.  The only thing I wish it had was clarification that food from farmers markets isn't by definition "dirty," but because these venues aren't regulated the way commercial food production systems are, the produce may (or may not) be cleaned to the same standards.  The implication when shopping at farmers markets is that the consumers will take their hygiene into their own hands--as it should be, in my opinion.  Folks will inspect and wash their purchases to the extent their deem appropriate.  The freshest and ripest produce usually can't hand the sterilizing cleanings that grocery store versions undergo because they're tender skins are more prone to damage. Grocery stores sell you under ripe produce as a rule: the tougher skin and flesh not only transports more easily without damage, but it also lasts longer in the consumers' refrigerators after it is sold.  In a world used to months or years long shelf life processed foods, we have come to expect the same extended life of our produce (which is crazy!). 

With my caveat aside, I'm posting the full article here in case the link expires.  (Copyright Leach, Jeffrey D. Dirtying Up Our Diets. New York Times. June 20, 2012.)  If you're a dirt lover like me: enjoy.  If you're not: I hope you learn something.

Dirtying Up Our Diets


OVER 7,000 strong and growing, community farmers’ markets are being heralded as a panacea for what ails our sick nation. The smell of fresh, earthy goodness is the reason environmentalists approve of them, locavores can’t live without them, and the first lady has hitched her vegetable cart crusade to them. As health-giving as those bundles of mouthwatering leafy greens and crates of plump tomatoes are, the greatest social contribution of the farmers’ market may be its role as a delivery vehicle for putting dirt back into the American diet and in the process, reacquainting the human immune system with some “old friends.”
Lauren Nassef
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Increasing evidence suggests that the alarming rise in allergic and autoimmune disorders during the past few decades is at least partly attributable to our lack of exposure to microorganisms that once covered our food and us. As nature’s blanket, the potentially pathogenic and benign microorganisms associated with the dirt that once covered every aspect of our preindustrial day guaranteed a time-honored co-evolutionary process that established “normal” background levels and kept our bodies from overreacting to foreign bodies. This research suggests that reintroducing some of the organisms from the mud and water of our natural world would help avoid an overreaction of an otherwise healthy immune response that results in such chronic diseases as Type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis and a host of allergic disorders.
In a world of hand sanitizer and wet wipes (not to mention double tall skinny soy vanilla lattes), we can scarcely imagine the preindustrial lifestyle that resulted in the daily intake of trillions of helpful organisms. For nearly all of human history, this began with maternal transmission of beneficial microbes during passage through the birth canal — mother to child. However, the alarming increase in the rate of Caesarean section births means a potential loss of microbiota from one generation to the next. And for most of us in the industrialized world, the microbial cleansing continues throughout life. Nature’s dirt floor has been replaced by tile; our once soiled and sooted bodies and clothes are cleaned almost daily; our muddy water is filtered and treated; our rotting and fermenting food has been chilled; and the cowshed has been neatly tucked out of sight. While these improvements in hygiene and sanitation deserve applause, they have inadvertently given rise to a set of truly human-made diseases.
While comforting to the germ-phobic public, the too-shiny produce and triple-washed and bagged leafy greens in our local grocery aisle are hardly recognized by our immune system as food. The immune system is essentially a sensory mechanism for recognizing microbial challenges from the environment. Just as your tongue and nose are used to sense suitability for consumption, your immune system has receptors for sampling the environment, rigorous mechanisms for dealing with friend or foe, and a memory. Your immune system even has the capacity to learn.
For all of human history, this learning was driven by our near-continuous exposure from birth and throughout life to organisms as diverse as mycobacteria from soil and food; helminth, or worm parasites, from just about everywhere you turned; and daily recognition and challenges from our very own bacteria. Our ability to regulate our allergic and inflammatory responses to these co-evolved companions is further compromised by imbalances in the gut microbiota from overzealous use of antibiotics (especially in early childhood) and modern dietary choices.
The suggestion that we embrace some “old friends” does not immediately imply that we are inviting more food-borne illness — quite the contrary. Setting aside for the moment the fact that we have the safest food supply in human history, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and food processing plants and farmers continue to take the blame for the tainted food that makes us ill, while our own all-American sick gut may deserve some blame as well.
While the news media and litigators have our attention focused on farm-to-table food safety and disease surveillance, the biological question of why we got sick is all but ignored. And by asking why an individual’s natural defenses failed, we insert personal responsibility into our national food safety strategy and draw attention to the much larger public health crisis, of which illness from food-borne pathogens is but a symptom of our minimally challenged and thus overreactive immune system.
As humans have evolved, so, too, have our diseases. Autoimmune disease affects an estimated 50 million people at an annual cost of more than $100 billion. And the suffering and monetary costs are sure to grow. Maybe it’s time we talk more about human ecology when we speak of the broader environmental and ecological concerns of the day. The destruction of our inner ecosystem surely deserves more attention as global populations run gut-first into the buzz saw of globalization and its microbial scrubbing diet. But more important, we should seriously consider making evolutionary biology a basic science for medicine, or making its core principles compulsory in secondary education. Currently they are not.
As we move deeper into a “postmodern” era of squeaky-clean food and hand sanitizers at every turn, we should probably hug our local farmers’ markets a little tighter. They may represent our only connection with some “old friends” we cannot afford to ignore.


Mariah said...

like it says kills 99% of germs which means that 1% is super wirey and strong

Kaitlin said...

htat pic of you sleeping is adorable.

Leah Roy said...

INTERESTING! We are old school hand washers with warm soap and water and as far as washing veggies goes, I'm probably the worst. I tend to wash fruits more often though. I get most produce from a farmers market type place down here or Costco. Not sure what that says about me just some facts I'm sharing. My diet sure has changed since having children though. And my kids totally eat dirt. Maybe that will help Charlie outgrow his allergies? One can only dream!

steph.kelley said...

Yeah dirt! Like the photos of you. And of Eddie: what special garden produce! :)