Good dirt makes us healthier, happier

Jun. 29, 2013 @ 10:22 PM

Most afternoons when the sun dips behind the tree tops, I head to the garden.  Usually I carry a bucket of scraps out from the kitchen and bring back a few handfuls of plants for dinner.  In between, I’ll kneel here and there to poke some seeds into the soft dirt, or pull some stubborn weeds from where they do not belong.

Inevitably I’ll begin to feel the dirt under my fingernails before I remember that I could have put on my garden gloves.  I’ll ponder the possibility, shake my head, “nah,” and continue to plunge my hands deeper into the warm earth.  I can’t tell you why, but I know I feel better for the experience.

When I was a kid, “dirty” was a dirty word.  Cleanliness was a mark of status, and I was taught to scrub knees and elbows, and to wash my neck carefully to dislodge the rings of dirt that threatened to collect there.  In school we learned that germs were bad things, threatening to make us sick, and though we couldn’t see them we imagined wriggly bacteria on everything, and learned to wash our hands repeatedly.  A good germ was, apparently a dead one.

Even today, I run across stories about germs in print or on the radio.  There are substances, apparently, that make them visible now, and these stories love to compare something in the kitchen, that sponge, for example, with the bathroom toilet.  Inevitably the toilet wins…it has fewer germs than the kitchen sponge, and everyone says, “Yuck!”

Today germs have a new, sanitized nomenclature.  We call them “microbes,” and are discovering that they are essential – not only for our health, but for our very existence.  We are covered in microbes and permeated by them.   The essential microbes in our guts weigh several pounds, and are the basis of our immune systems.  But they are not us.  They are not human.

In fact, the only time of our life we are “germ-free” is in utero.  There we are 100 percent human.  Once we slide down that birth canal, we inherit a veritable universe of microbes that, truly, defines us.  By a cellular count we are only 10 percent human.  The other 90 percent of us is composed of microbes, many of which colonized us at birth and have evolved with us. 

Our prolific use of anti-microbial agents (soaps, sprays) are killing off these “good germs” that we all require for good health.  The plethora of autoimmune diseases we experience today might be a consequence of inflammation that results from microbial imbalances in and on us.  Doctors are now transplanting microbes into people and achieving the healing of conditions once considered chronic.

The food we eat is a factor in our microbial health.  Simple sugars and some fats encourage the growth of harmful bacteria much like algae bloom in once-clear waterways.  Studies conducted by Dr. Paresh Dandona in Buffalo show startling results in trials that compare typical McDonald’s fare with real foods, even unsweetened orange juice -- which many considered sugary.  The McDonald’s fare had a dramatic inflammatory effect that lasted for hours.  Unprocessed foods did not.  “What matters is not how much you eat,” Dandora said, “but what you eat.”

Good health starts out there in the field or garden, with good dirt.  Industrial farming depletes the soil of its microbial systems — essentially sterilizing it.  Organic farming builds soil health, and good dirt, in turn, sustains us and the planet.  The more we learn about food and health, the more this information points us back to the gardens and fields….to the way herbivore mammals have always eaten.  

In addition to making us healthy, other studies show that good dirt literally makes us happier.  Dirt between our toes and beneath our fingernails is cheaper than therapy, safer than drugs, and a lot more fun than going to the doctor.  So kick off your shoes.  Dig a hole, plant a seed and munch a leaf.  Even a big pot of dirt on the back porch can yield much of this happiness and health.

Susan Gladin is a freelance writer, United Methodist minister, and curriculum coordinator at the Johnson Intern Program in Chapel Hill. She tends horses and a home business on the farm she shares with her husband. Their two grown daughters live nearby. You may e-mail her at, or write c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.