Our health is intimately connected to “dirt”. Soil Scientist William A. Albrect (1888 – 1974) believed that the chemistry of each of our bodies provides a picture of the soil in which the food we eat is grown. The importance of maintaining healthy soils so that our food is nutrient dense is of supreme importance.
But, there is another, not so obvious way in which soil can affect us. Soil is teeming with life – earthworms and centipedes, fungi and bacteria, and so much more. One type of bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae (M. vaccae), is particularly fascinating.
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M. vacae is especially abundant in soils rich in moist, organic matter. When we work in the soil, we breath it in. And we ingest it when we eat freshly harvested produce. M. vaccae then does something marvelous. It triggers the release of serotonin in our brains. Our mood improves; depression is allayed. Our immune system is strengthened; learning is boosted. All of these are areas where serotonin plays a role.
In addition to depression, low levels of serotonin have been associated with anxiety, aggression, bipolar disorder, irritable bowel, fibromyalgia, and more. Boosting our serotonin by exposing ourselves and our family to soil bacteria goes a long way in building health.
Children should be playing outdoors and getting dirty. Dr. Mary Ruebush, immunologist and author of Why Dirt is Good says “If your child isn’t coming in dirty every day, they’re not doing their job.” She considers playing in the dirt an important step in building their immune systems.
Gardening is one obvious way that we can get our M. vaccae fix. And gardening has so many other health benefits. It’s good exercise, provides fresh produce, helps establish healthy eating habits, and exposes us to Vitamin D from sunshine. It’s not the only way to get dirty, of course. You can also:
- Remove the sod from an area of your yard and keep dirt friendly toys like trucks, buckets, spoons, pots and pans available for play.
- Take nature walks. Collect stones and leaves, and pick wildflowers. Don’t worry about dirty hands.
- Have a scavenger hunt in the woods, or even in your backyard. List items to find that must be picked up off of the ground.
- When my son was little, one of his favorite activities was “digging a hole to China.”
- Explore the edges of a pond or creek.
- Go camping, especially tent camping, where you are pounding stakes into the soil, sitting on logs and running around the woods.
- If all else fails, just get outdoors.
What great ways has your family found to play in the dirt?
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