When I think of my childhood, I think first of all the hours I spent playing in the dirt. To my childhood self, there was nothing better than upending rocks to look for salamanders, wading into skanky ponds with the hope of nabbing a turtle, or crouched at creek’s edge catching minnows. I spent hours on end fascinated and grimy.
While my parents might not have loved how dirty I became (I could leave an impressive bathtub ring!), it turns out that my time rooting around in the dirt may have actually been good for my health. It seems that your well-being is connected to the microbes you carry on and in your body, and the greater variety that you are exposed to, especially as a child, the better the odds that you will be healthy as an adult.
Your body is host to billions of microbes that live not only on your skin, but also in your mouth, gut, nose, and pretty much everywhere else. These microbes form colonies called microbiomes, a topic that scientists are only now beginning to understand. What they do know, however, is that human life needs these bugs for our very survival.
At issue now, however, is that while I grew up in an environment where I could explore these wild habitats, more and more kids today are raised in urban or suburban communities without the exposure to a broad variety of microbes to develop optimal immunity. Scientists are finding that exposure to a lot of different bugs teaches our immune system to discern between the good, bad, and the harmless. The result of this loss of exposure to what is essentially dirt, is an increased incidence of allergies, asthma, digestive problems, food sensitivities, and other immune-related illnesses.
Along this same line, in Chinese medicine what doesn’t make you sick makes you stronger. And what makes you sick according to this medicine includes a whole host of lifestyle factors, such as stress, overworking, and eating improperly. However, when it comes to bugs, the harbingers of illness in Chinese medicine include parasites, pathogens, and unclean food. Pathogens include the world of microbes, viruses, bacteria, and allergens. According to Chinese medicine, you are able to resist many of these pathogens when your protective energy (called Wei Qi) is strong. Much like immunity, when you are strong and healthy, your protective energy is strong. When you become run down or stressed, your energy takes a hit, your protective barrier becomes weak, and you get a cold, the flu, allergies, or some other illness.
So, according to Chinese medicine, the way to maintain your health and immunity is to maintain your energy. This means eating the right foods in the right amounts, getting enough sleep, balancing work with rest, managing your stress, and exercising moderately.
In addition, because much of Chinese medicine is based on patterns in nature, connecting with the natural world is a good way not only to enhance your spiritual health, but also to gain more exposure to the microbe world. Here are a few simple ways to do that—for you and the children in your life:
-Go outside and play. Ideally in a park or a wild space. Running, hiding, touching the ground and getting dirty are good ways to get in touch with some bugs, big and small.
-Go barefoot outdoors. Ditto about the bugs.
-Pick fruit, especially in the wild. As a kid, we had blueberry bushes growing along our driveway. Filling up a bucket of blues involved contact with lots of wild things, even though it was in our front yard.
-Grow a garden. Flowers or vegetables; either will get you and your kids in touch with the soil. The upside with growing vegetables is that you’re also growing food that will affect your intestinal microbes—in a good way.
-Explore the natural world. The options are endless: checking out wildflowers in the spring, studying minnows in a nearby creek, exploring pond ecology, or hiking in the woods. Don’t be afraid to touch and examine.
-Avoid the things that kill off the good bugs on/in your body. Consider antibiotic use only as a last resort, avoid antibacterial hand soaps and sanitizers, and remember it’s okay to get a little dirty.
So did spending my childhood as a dirty girl make me any healthier? I don’t know. What I do know is that I never had allergies. Never, at least until I moved from the maple and oak forests of New England to sunny Colorado. Living in the foothill shrublands of Boulder, I developed an allergy to Russian olive trees—a species I had never been exposed to as a kid. Go figure.