Let Them Eat Dirt! It Contains Essential Worms

By Nina Bai | January 30, 2009 12:48 pm

dirtHere’s some medical advice kids will like and parents may be surprised to hear: “Children should be allowed to go barefoot in the dirt, play in the dirt, and not have to wash their hands when they come in to eat,” says Dr. Joel V. Weinstock of Tufts Medicial Center. (He also suggests having lots of cats and dogs around the house.)

And he’s not alone. Increasingly, medical researchers have come to believe that our current obsession with cleanliness is making us sicker. Eat a few worms, ingest some fecal bacteria, get a taste of dirt, they say.

Evidence supporting the hygiene hypothesis, which says that a lack of exposure to microorganisms at a young age prevents the development of a healthy immune system, is turning up in many forms. In one study, pampered dogs that had been fed only human food and bottled water developed eczema, but after they were given mud taken from a cowshed, the eczema disappeared. In another study, scientists were able to prevent Type I diabetes in mice by giving them an extract taken from tropical worms. In yet another study, Argentinian patients with multiple sclerosis who were infected with whipworm developed milder symptoms.

The hygiene hypothesis would explain the increase in cases of immune system disorders, such as Type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, and allergies, in developed countries. Humans and worms have evolved together like “old friends,” researchers say, and some worms can live peacefully in the human body for 15 to 20 years. Early exposure to worms and other organisms is essential to teaching the immune system what to fight and what to ignore. As they say, what doesn’t kill you (and experts say few things will if you’re well-nourished), will only make you stronger.

Researchers are now testing whether exposure to hook worms can cure asthma and whether exposure to pig worms can treat inflammation of the colon. Eventually therapies or vaccines wouldn’t require swallowing whole parasites, they say—only parts. Of course, an easier way to meet some microbial friends may be to just use a public computer.

Related Content:
Discoblog: It’s Time for My Bath! British Keyboards Beg to Be Cleaned
DISCOVER: Asthma and the Curse of Cleanliness

Image: flickr / schillergarcia

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