Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The Joy of Dirt

I don't often use the word "joy" and the word "dirt" in the same sentence. If Remy and Kirby could write a blog, I'm sure they would use the terms often and with great gusto. The dogs have a completely different relationship with dirt than I do. They love to run in it, roll in it, dig in it and unabashedly eat things that live on it and in it.

I, however, have always had very mixed feelings about dirt. As a child growing up in Iowa I was fascinated by all the critters that lived in the rich, black soil of our yard. I dug up earthworms for fishing. I made mud pies. I buried things and discovered things buried by children past. My parents allowed me to run around barefoot in the grass (something for which I am eternally grateful).  I feel sad for children who never get to take their shoes off and sink their toes into the mud.

But for all of my family's outdoor appreciation of dirt, once inside, dirt was the enemy. My mom (bless her) heeded the advice of the day, which was to keep everything in the house spotlessly clean. After being in the workforce for nearly 20 years, she became a stay-at-home mom and took on the job of housework like a professional. Bleach. Spic-and-Span. Mr. Clean. Our floors were so clean I could eat off of them (and occasionally did).

But now, as an adult, (and much to my mother's chagrin I'm sure) I do not have the wherewithal (or the time) to maintain the primo level of dirt-and-dust-free-ness I grew up with. Dirt happens. It's entropy. And I prefer environmentally-friendly cleaning products that, let's face it, don't quite annihilate the dirt like Mr. Clean did (he should have been called Commando Clean). In any case, that doesn't stop me from feeling some guilt around the level of dust, dirt and clutter in our house at present, particularly since Mom now lives with us and has to put up with it. But it does make me wonder...

How much dirt is OK?  Now that we're living on a little farm and looking forward to growing a lot of our own food organically, I am developing a whole new relationship with dirt. In particular, the article, "The Surprising Healing Qualities of Dirt" by Daphne Miller, MD made me rethink the value of dirt as a critical element of our health and well-being. I recently saw Dr. Miller give an excellent presentation on this very subject at the Institute for Functional Medicine annual conference, where more than a few MD's jaws dropped at some of her assertions.

Miller claims (with some very interesting and credible evidence to back it up) that "soil teeming with a wide diversity of life (especially bacteria, fungi, and nematodes) is more likely to produce nutrient-dense food" and that soil microbes and other farm microbes may have a protective effect against allergic diseases. She cites data that offers new explanations for the so-called “farm effect” -- that children who grow up on farms and in rural environments tend to have fewer allergies. This was previously thought to be explained by early life exposure to a variety of microbes that dampened the allergic response of our adaptive immune system. But it may be more complicated (and more significant) than that. Now, she says, through the science of metagenomics (through which we can sequence the DNA of an entire microbiome) "we’re beginning to connect the dots and we’re discovering that genetic swaps can take place between our microbiome and the outside world—particularly the places where our food is grown." This may, in effect, help foster the growth of a more diverse and protective microbiome in our gut -- that's right, our gut -- which helps us better digest the nutrients from our food and fight off pathogens.


This has huge implications for the health of our species (and many others). If we continue to pour Roundup and other pesticides on our yards and gardens and farm fields, these chemicals will continue to decrease the microbial diversity of our soil and, in turn, end up decreasing the nutritional value of our food. And she cites work being done by microbiologists at Washington University in St. Louis who have "recently noted that soil bacteria exposed to antibiotics and other chemicals can develop antibiotic resistant genes which... can be transferred to our microbiome, turning otherwise benign resident bacteria into 'superbugs.'”

Wow again.

Maybe the dogs have it right. At least I'm comforted when I turn over a rock in our yard and see a whole city of visible critters living beneath it. I'm hoping this means that a lot more invisible microbes -- the good ones that make our apples and plums and kale have more nutritional value -- are down there too.

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