About twenty years ago, doctors and health researchers began talking about something they called the Farm Effect. In pretty much every urban and suburban area in the world, incidences of childhood asthma and allergies have been steadily rising for several decades. Not only have these illnesses increased in number, but also in severity. Asthma attacks and allergic reactions have become dangerous and even deadly. While scientists were contemplating the causes for this, they noticed a trend. Children who were born and raised on a farm, or who visited farms often (especially early in life), had far lower chances of developing asthma or allergies than their peers living in cities or towns.
Because both asthma and allergies are tied to the immune system, it seemed obvious that the immune systems of the farm children were different than the immune systems of the city dwellers. In fact, the farm kids had healthier immune systems than their friends who lived in the nearby towns. Why would this be so? Studies have indicated that early exposure to a multitude of microbes can strengthen the immune system. This microbial effect is even beneficial in the womb; pregnant women who work in farm settings have children with lower rates of immunological disorders.
Since these early studies on the farm effect, much more has been learned about the phenomenon. It has been found that our relatively recent obsession with keeping our environments as sterile as possible has actually had a negative effect on our children’s health. A developing immune system needs exposure to microbes in order to learn what to ignore and what to defend itself against.
It isn’t only children who need to be playing around in the dirt. Soil microbes actually work as natural antidepressants by releasing serotonin in the brain, helping us to feel more relaxed and happy. A study of gardeners who grow their own food showed increased levels of dopamine while they were harvesting their crops. Researchers have dubbed this the “Harvest High.” Also, bacteria on your skin can help manage inflammatory skin conditions and even help heal wounds.
Don’t be dismayed if you are a city dweller and think you can’t create the farm effect for you and your family. There are things you can do to bring about many of the benefits of this phenomenon. First, stop using antibacterial soaps and detergents. These products actually kill off good bacteria, leaving the bad bacteria to multiply. Next, try to eliminate as much processed food and sugar from your diet as possible. Visit farmer’s markets and produce stands when possible. Garden with your kids. It doesn’t have to be anything big or fancy, just get them outside playing in some dirt. Explore the great outdoors with your kids. Study nature with them. Start collections, wade in streams. In other words, get down and dirty! It’s good for you!