Dirt Exposure Boosts Happiness

My journey

I have to admit, until recently, I was not keen on letting my kids play in the dirt.  Selfishly, I would think about the work required of me to clean them up afterwards.   And so, I came up with various excuses for why it wasn’t a good time to get dirty, or I would even suggest some other “cleaner activity” for them to take part in.

But recently, I have been learning about the importance of exposure to bacteria in soil to promote a healthy immune system and good mental health.


Photo of my toddler playing in mud. 

The science

Current research is showing that dirt exposure can lift mood and boost the immune system.  “A bacteria found in soil called mycobacterium has been found to effect the same neurons as Prozac, offering people a natural lift in mood.” In a study done by the University of Bristol and University College of London conducted by Dr. Chris Lowry,  the results showed that when they injected cancer patients with this bacteria,  “[The bacteria] had the exact same effect as antidepressant drugs.”

Just think about the implications of this. How many kids might be off medication for mental health conditions if they played in the dirt more often? And why aren’t people talking about this? According to the center for disease control “One in seven children ages 2-8 years old has a mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder.” Crazy right! And suicide is the second leading cause of childhood death.


The hygiene hypothesis: Are we too clean

When you think about it ….. compared to our ancestors, we spend very little time with out hands in the dirt, or even outside for that matter. In the past 150 years or so, we have become so focused on sanitization, that in our effort to eliminate some illness, which we call “filth diseases“, we have made ourselves sick in other ways. ( ie asthma, allergies, autoimmune diseases).  

According to the “hygiene hypothesis,” the problem with extremely clean environments is that they fail to provide the necessary exposure to germs required to “educate” the immune system so it can learn to launch its defense responses to infectious organisms.” (FDA)  

While good hygiene is important, kids need to be exposed to bacteria to “grow a stronger immune system,”  as my chiropractor Dr. Sutterly always tells me.

What does all this mean to me?


My son helping at the Readington Community Garden

Getting out of my comfort zone is not easy.  Like I said, I don’t like cleaning up dirty kids. My compromise is preparation.  When we went to a community garden last Saturday, I brought a change of clothes for kids.  So when they got a little carried away filling watering cans with the hose, I had a backup plan. It amazingly left me really relaxed knowing that I had something else for them to wear.

Another new step for me is that we are growing some seedlings in my house and have begun the process of transplanting them into the garden.  While I am happy about getting my kids exposed to some of the healthy bacteria in the soil, I hadn’t considered the additional benefits. My son is learning that caring for plants takes: patience, gentleness, and faithfulness. All good character traits that I want to instill in him.

I also have plans to do some play with dirt and mud on “trays” on the my deck, which is much more my speed.  Baby steps right? I will be sure to keep you posted.

Up and coming research: Mycrobacterium and Anxiety  

Dr. Lowry is also working on research to see if exposure to mycobacterium would reduce anxiety in veterans.

Ultimately, he believes the bacteria – via pill, inhalation or injection – could be given to people at high risk of PTSD – such as soldiers preparing to be deployed or emergency room workers – to buffer the physical and behavioral side-effects that can result from high stress.

I can’t wait to see the results of this study, because as a school counselor I have seen childhood anxiety rates skyrocketing as well.