by Meriam Dineva
Bachelor of Science in Health Studies | Austria
by Paola Dineva
Teacher in Training | Netherlands
"Wash your hands" "Don't touch your face!" "Do not use public transportation!"
"Don't play with that!" We have heard statements like these over and over again during the past year. In a way they have become part of our everyday life. In the midst of a worldwide panemic, the word hygiene has taken on a whole different meaning. For some of us this might have been an eye-opener and for others a confirmation that germs are everywhere. But are germs always bad? Is stringent hygiene always necessary? What if some germs are actually good for us? In this article we will take a closer look at this controversial topic and learn more about the benefits of an occasional jump into a dirty puddle.
Many might consider hygiene a mod ern practice. However, if you take a peek into history books you will dis cover that ancient civilizations were actually relatively advanced in regard to hygiene. For instance, the Mayas had very sophisticated systems of sanitation and water management; Romans invented public toilets, bath houses, and impressive sewer systems; and Egyptians esteemed hygiene an important cultural virtue. However, there were also cultures that regarded exaggerated hygiene as a danger to one's personal health. For example, in the 19th century the French believed that excessive bathing might strip the skin's protection a nd make the body more prone to disease. All these facts make far more impressive the astonishing Biblical instructions that Israelites were to follow with meticulous care. A study of Leviticus shows how specific the guidelines were and how they were meant to both prevent and eradicate disease. In fact, you might be surprised that the concept of quarantine is actually found in the Bible. See Levitic us 5:2-3; 131-40;14:8; 15:13, etc.
However, even though God had a rea son for specific hygiene procedures, we now live in a society that has taken hygiene to the next level. Everything is sanitized and beautifully packaged and displayed on store shelves. While our predecessors dug their hands into dirt to earn their daily bread, we now seldom come anywhere near the stuff In a sedentary society in which children hardly ever play outside and follow strict hygiene rules at home, at school, and everywhere else, a greater question arises. Is it possible that we are over-sanitizing our children? The fear that germs are lurking all around us is understandable-to some ex tent. After all, everyone remembers the time when thousands died in
the Middle Ages because of the violation of basic hygiene rules. Then doctors and scholars such as lgnaz Semmelweis ca me to the realization that simple handwashing in hospitals might prevent numerous deaths. But then again, it is in a way ironic to read in Leviticus 15:13 that a recovering person should "bathe his flesh in running water and . be clean" and realize that God had already given us long ago all the information needed to protect ourselves.
So now you may ask yourselves: "What is your point? Are we washing too much or too little? Where a re you going with this discussion?" Let us ex plain.
Before the invention of computers, smartphones, and tablets, the typical childhood pastime involved playing outside, jumping into puddles, building forts and sand castles, climbing trees, chasing butterflies, and so much more. Nowadays, however, children hardly ever see the sunlight because they spend a significant part of their time behind closed doors staring at screens. In fact, today "we are raising a generation of sedentary kids who would much rather sit on the couch with a game controller and Mario than be outside armed only with a stick and their imagination[s]" (Kennedy, 2018). But what does this mean for their immune systems? First of all, there are two types of immune systems: the innate, or general, immune system and the adaptive, or specialized, immune system. The innate immune system is what we are born with. It is the body's first defense against germs, bacteria, and viruses. This protection is offered by the body's largest organ, the skin, which acts as a physical barrier for anything that might be harmful. If germs get past the skin's surface, however, then defense cells, enzymes, and natural
killer cells are activated and start acharn reaction that identifies and neutralizes or destroys harmful sub stances. If the innate immune system is not able to destroy the germs, the adaptive immune system takes over. The adaptive system needs to identify a nd afterwards target the germ(s) that cause the infection. This process to find the intruder can take a bit lonner, but it is way more accurate. The specialized immune system has the abilities to" remember" germs oneeen countered and reacts immediately if the body comes in contact with them again. The adaptive system is the rea son we get some illnesses only once or have a milder infection the second time around.
But how do our bodies learn which germs to target? After all, there are untold numbers of germ species, and most of them are not harmful to the majority of people Some germs are even beneficial. In order to work efficiently, the adaptive immune system " needs to know which substances in the environment are harmless and which pose a threat. Without that training, the immune system can go into overdrive, triggering dangerous reactions when it s shouldn't" (Stevens, 2019). Fortunately, however, many regularly encountered mic robes have the ability to educate our immune systems. In the following paragraphs we will learn how playing outdoors ca n benefit children's immune systems and make children happier.
Getting dirty can decrease a child's risk for allergies, asthma, and other health problems
Many parents try to "protect" their children from harmful germs, bacteria, and viruses by giving instructions to wash hands with soap and stay away from dirt. The problem is that antibacterial I soaps and sanitizers are not able to determine which germs to kill. Consequently, the agents remove both good germs and bad ones. This means that these products desensitize the immune system and make it unable to respond to threat when confronted with it. Because of an increase in allergies, a theory called "The Hygiene Hypothesis" emerged. It "suggests [that] a young child's environment can be 'too clean' to effectively stimulate or challenge the child's immune system to respond to various threats during the time a child's immune system is maturing" (Davis & Stoppler, 2018)
This indicates that when we try to protect our children by incessantly using hand sanitizers and antibacterial products, we may actually be inhibiting health and resilience. On the contrary, children's bodies become more resilient when exposed to germs and pathogens-and the risks for immune system disorders like asthma, allergies, and inflammations in adulthood are reduced significantly.
Playing in dirt might increase your serotonin level and raise your mood
Getting covered in mud actually results in surprising benefits, even though the activity causes headaches for a lot of moms. Studies have shown that direct contact with the soil improves children's moods and reduces anxiety. In fact, a study from the University of Bristol showed that bacteria found in the soil can cause effects similar to those resulting from the use of antidepressant drugs. The study suggests that these bacteria have the ability to increase "the release of serotonin in parts of the brain that regulate mood" (University of Bristol, 2007). It is not surprising that children have so much fun digging for stones and worms and making mud pies. So next time you see your child covered in mud, worry less about the extra laundry and enjoy the fact that your child is happy and healthy.
Playing with mud increases creativity
Mud is like Plasticine, or Play-Doh, and provides endless opportunities to develop creativity and sensory and problem-solving skills. A recent study revealed "a strong and significant link between creative problem-solving and heightened activity in the cerebellum, the area of the brain controlling movement" (National Geographic, 2018). A lot of brain work takes place when children are playing in mud. Who knows, maybe the child who builds a house with mud will one day be an architect or construction worker. Or the child who operates on a "mud patient" will become a doctor. Children are naturally programmed to learn by touching, building, getting dirty, and having fun in something as simple as dirt. All mess aside, playing with mud is a great developmental practice.
Playing outside sensitizes children to climate change
Here's one extra point that has no correlation with the health of our children: As we all know, climate change has been a big topic in recent years. It is very important to take good care of our planet because it is our home and grows our food. A study published by the University of British Columbia was able to validate the idea that children with positive childhood experiences in nature are more interested in protecting, preserving, and cherishing nature when they reach adolescence. Thus, today's good habits will have a good impact on the next generation.
The above-mentioned points are fascinating. They show that the outdoors is the world's greatest playground and school. Being outdoors helps children to develop not only their immune systems but also their mental health. Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize that good dirt is found in unspoiled nature, away from the contaminants of modern-day industrialization. This article does not discredit basic sanitation measures, but rather encourages parents to let their children have fun and explore the world around them. There is nothing wrong with using soap and water or hand sanitizer every once in a while. How ever, it is important to keep in mind that balance is key. "God has put into children a desire to play in the natural world. Encourage their discovery. Get yourself and your child outside and don't worry about getting dirty.
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