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Let your kids play in the dirt: UBC research

Last Updated Aug 10, 2016 at 10:07 pm PST

Summary

Researchers says you shouldn't encourage your kids to wash their hands every time they see a little bit of dirt

Experts encourage parents to promote a diet full of fiber, complex carbs and nuts

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – For years, parents of little children have ensured their little ones don’t get too messy and are quickly encouraged to wash up before dinner.

Or perhaps there’s a bottle of hand sanitizer sitting somewhere on a table in your home.

But are all these hygienic steps actually good for kids?

New research from UBC microbiologists Brett Finlay and Marie-Claire Arrieta suggests that excessive hygiene can do harm early in life by denying kids exposure to healthy bacteria.

“For us, ‘clean’ means ‘well taken care of’, it means healthy,” says Arrieta, “and we’re starting to now backtrack and ask ourselves ‘does it really?'”

Exposure to microbes early in life helps to build our immune systems, and Arrieta argues that trying to prevent that exposure can raise a child’s vulnerability to a host of illnesses.

“Our immune system hasn’t been training in the same way, and things like asthma, obesity, even autism are thought to be a response to this lack of ‘immune school’.”

Microbes are now also associated with diabetes, abnormal brain development, inflammatory bowel diseases and depression.

The researchers suggest letting kids “stay a bit dirty”. That means don’t wash their hands every few minutes, let them play outside, have a pet, and give them a diet that encourages microbes which includes fiber, complex carbohydrates, nuts and fermented foods.

For a start, Arrieta recommends a switch back to soap and water for washing instead of sanitizer. While anti-bacterial gels have become commonplace in school classrooms, she says it should only be used when illness breaks out.