Letting infants get a little dirty in the first year, or even the first few months of life, may help prevent health problems like obesity, type two diabetes and asthma later in life, according to UBC microbiologists.

Scientists have known for years that certain microbes help build a strong immune system. But UBC researchers are now shedding light on just how early in life this process starts and how doctors may be able to prevent diseases by exposing infants to certain microbes.

"Less than a year in life is when there seems to be a profound effect on how your microbes are developing, and they affect how our immune system develops, which then affects whether you get asthma or allergies," said Brett Finlay, a microbiologist at UBC.

Finlay and co-author Marie-Claire Arrieta is releasing their book on this topic, called Let Them Eat Dirt: How Our Quest for Clean is Making Our Children Sick, later this year.

Finlay is also giving a talk on this topic tonight at Sam Sullivan's Public Salon in Vancouver. 

Starting from birth

It turns out microbial protection from disease starts during pregnancy, according to Finlay.

For instance, children who are born by caesarean section are 20 per cent more likely to have asthma, he said. But new research is pinpointing specific microbes that affect this process.

Children can be protected from developing asthma if they are exposed to four specific gut bacteria by the time they turn three months old, according to Finlay's work.

That discovery may be the key to preventing asthma altogether.

"Maybe we can give these four [microbes] back and correct it."

Disease prevention

Finlay says the modern-day ideas like washing hands often may contribute to high rates of what some scientists call 'Western' diseases in developed countries.

"Obesity, type two diabetes, asthma, allergies, inflammatory bowel diseases — these things are just going through the absolute roof in terms of instances in our society."

People could learn a thing or two from how their older relatives did things, he said.

"If you think how we live now and how we raise our kids now, versus how our great grandparents raised their kids ... we live in a very different world in terms of microbial exposure."

But forgoing antibacterial hand soap and leaving children's toys unsterilized doesn't mean people should push aside important health measures like vaccines. Vaccines are a "terrific public health measure," said Finlay.


To listen to the full audio, click the link labelled: Let Them Eat Dirt author.