Children have always been in contact with soil in a number of ways, but the exposure children have to the earth is becoming more and more limited. With the increase in inner-city living and busy lifestyles, children are allowed less and less free outdoor play time – but at what cost?
More than ever we face over-sanitation via antibacterial hand gels, soap, and various wipes. Coupled with this, is our significantly diminished connection to the earth, which is replaced by a more sedentary lifestyle.
It’s important we recognize and remember the need for outdoor play for young children’s growth and development.
The way infants experience their world and the natural interactions they have, play a huge role in their immune development. Research collectively supports the theory that exposures to microbes in the first months of life have strong effects on the developing human immune system.
The exposures during infancy that are related to a reduced risk of allergy and asthma are interaction with animals, soil based organisms, breast feeding, and mode of birth (vaginal delivery). These exposures are grouped under the term “Hygiene Hypothesis”, with the common feature of these allergy risk-related exposures being their ability to positively impact the gut microbiota from a young age. The microbiota of children who have experienced these type of exposures have altered gut flora that influences immune development and function, and alters the risk of allergic disease and asthma.
Healthy soil is packed full of active microorganisms such as friendly bacteria, fermenting vegetable matter, and worms. Research has shown that children require exposure to friendly micro-organisms in the environment to ensure adequate immune system maturation.
These soil based organisms nourish the lining of the gastrointestinal tract and support the growth of new healthy bacteria, whilst at the same time support healthy digestion and absorption of vitamins and minerals.
With enough healthy gut bacteria, opportunistic pathogens find it difficult adhere to the gut lining and multiply. This diversity in healthy gut bacteria regulates the immune system and supports a reduction in inflammatory conditions.
Exposure to these soil-based organisms has even been shown as a contributing factor in the successful treatment of some chronic conditions, such as allergies and ulcerative colitis, by supporting gut health and immune response. One study suggested diversity in exposure at a micro-ecological level during infancy is related to a reduced risk of allergy and asthma and autoimmune conditions (Prescott 2017).
One study explains how researchers have found ‘healing soil’ in Northern Ireland with remarkable medicinal properties. Within the soil, an unknown strain of bacteria was found, which produces antibiotics capable of killing four of the world’s deadliest superbugs. The new strain of bacteria discovered in the soil has been named Streptomyces sp. myrophorea, and dates back to Neolithic times (Nelson 2018).
Hypotheses in the rise in pediatric asthma relating to limited outdoor play
One interesting study looked at possible explanations for the progressive rise in pediatric asthma:
Increased number of immunisations
Progressive increase in the use of antibiotics
Increase in use of paracetamol to treat fever
Increase in indoor entertainment with subsequent decrease in exposure to bacteria outdoors as well as decreased physical activity
Progressive increase in BMI among children
Changes to homes to increase comfort including increased carpeting and furnishing, and increased temperature.
Increased exposure to indoor allergens, dust mite
Increase in indoor play combined with changes in breathing patterns, for example a decline in sighs, and regular activation of sympathetic nervous system through TV entertainment
The best ways to strengthen immunity for children
In addition to positively impacting the microbiome, compelling unstructured outdoor play promotes cognitive, physical, sensory, social, and emotional wellbeing.
- Allow regular, daily outdoor play in the park or garden (encourage ‘planting’ in healthy and preferably organic soil).
- Make mud pies
- Don’t always sanitise your food. Eat some dirt through produce. Buy organic when possible, and rinse your produce but don’t scrub away the beneficial microbes
- Consume probiotic foods
- Consume raw honey (after 12 months of age) and bee pollen
- Encourage play with pets
- Visit a farm
- Swim in the ocean
- Get grounded and encourage shoes off for outdoor play when appropriate
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Yvette is a qualified Melbourne-based Naturopath and Nutritionist, MINDD Practitioner, member of the Naturopaths and Herbalists Association of Australia, and Complementary Medicine Association. Yvette specialises in the treatment of conditions commonly affecting women and children, with a key interest in children’s digestive and neurological conditions, as well as women’s hormonal concerns, digestive issues, fatigue, anxiety, and skin concerns. Yvette consults in South Yarra, Melbourne, as well as Australia-wide via skype/zoom/phone.
Disclaimer; We do not aim to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any illness or disease. Information on this site is shared for educational purposes only. You must consult with a health care practitioner before implementing any information or treatments from content found on this wellness blog or website. This is of the utmost importance if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, taking prescription medication, or have a medical condition.
The Naturopathic Co. Melbourne Naturopath 2020