The upside of dirt
Mud has a dirty reputation. But it turns out that mud, dirt, and soil have many health benefits and properties that can make us healthy and happy.
Mud has a dirty reputation. Soil, mud, dirt–they’re words associated with the unpleasant side of life. We say someone has a soiled reputation. When someone is in trouble, his name is mud. When people are speaking unfavourably of each other, they’re dishing dirt.
In our quest to stamp out disease and pestilence, we’ve come to view dirt in a negative light. But it turns out that mud–and more broadly, soil–has properties that can make us healthy and happy.
Playing in the Dirt
The connection between dirt and happiness came about when cancer researchers gave the bacterium, Mycobacterium vaccae (M. vaccae), found in soil, to a group of cancer patients. The goal of this randomized phase-3 study was to look at whether M. vaccae along with traditional chemotherapy would lead to longer survival.
The study found that those in the group who received M. vaccae did not live longer, but they did report a better quality of life. Taking the inquiry further, a study out of Bristol University found that mice exposed to M. vaccae experienced an elevation in serotonin, a hormone thought to combat depression.
Another mud-dwelling microbe, Salinispora tropica, found on the sea floor, is making waves because of its antibiotic and cancer-fighting properties. It is currently under trial as a treatment for multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow.
Gardeners have long known the satisfaction of turning the soil. Modern horticulture therapy takes advantage of the mood-elevating effects of digging in the dirt. Patients reap physical and psychological benefits ranging from improved circulation to increased self-esteem because of their accomplishments in the garden.
The Hygiene Hypothesis
To muddy the waters over the value of a super-clean environment, evidence suggests it takes a little dirt to maintain a strong immune system. The hygiene hypothesis supposes that our immune systems need to be exercised in order to get stronger, and when our immune systems have not been challenged, we become prone to allergies.
In one study, researchers predicted children who grew up in cleaner, less polluted environments would experience fewer allergies. They compared East and West German children after the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and found the opposite.
Asthma rates among children living in prosperous West Germany were higher than rates in children living in less affluent East Germany. They concluded the East German lifestyle, with its larger families and more rural setting, afforded children more contact with infectious agents and more opportunity to develop their immune systems.
While no one recommends a return to cave dwelling, evidence suggests we are not meant to live in a sterile environment.
Those of us with healthy immune systems can worry less about the perils of dirt. We simply need to stick to some basic principles of cleanliness to keep us safe from serious infection.
Frequent handwashing with plain soap and water is the best thing we can do to prevent infection. Antibacterial soap can actually encourage superbugs, because the bacteria it doesn’t kill live on to create meaner, stronger strains.
In the kitchen, all surfaces must be clean, perishable food stored in the refrigerator as soon as it is brought home, meats and their juices kept contained so they don’t drip on other foods, and a thermometer used to determine when meat is adequately cooked.
Ultimately, what’s key is achieving a balance between clean and not so clean. It’s good to get out there and feel the mud between our toes, to dig in the dirt, and to sling on a mud mask. Mud makes us healthier and happier.
Mud, Glorious Mud
Ironically, mud’s reputation in beauty products has remained relatively unsoiled. Salts of the earth have been used in makeup at least as far back as Cleopatra’s time. Evidence suggests the Egyptian queen accentuated her lips and cheeks with reds made from iron oxide. We are still mining the earth to make our faces shine, most recently with the new surge of mineral makeup.
Golden Moor is a Canadian company that uses Ontario mud in its line of pampering spa products, including body scrubs and mud bath powders. Origins, Lush, the Body Shop, and Burt’s Bees all use clays in their masks for pore reduction and to protect tired skin. Check the product’s ingredient list for earthy elements such as kaolin, china clay, and bentonite.