Here’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.