Maya Shetreat-Klein, a board certified neurologist and pediatrician, herbalist, urban farmer, naturalist and the author of The Dirt Cure: Growing Healthy Kids with Food Straight from Soil (Simon and Schuster, 2016), led a session at Natural Products Expo East on challenging conventional notions of hygiene and health.
She followed the central premise of her book, offering an integrative approach to treating and preventing neurological, behavioral and cognitive problems as well as chronic pediatric issues. The theory put forward by Shetreat-Klein (or Dr. Maya, as she prefers to be called) is that chronic disease results from a chronic lack of resilience. Because chronic disease is on the rise, we know that the inner health of most of our modern society is lacking—in other words, the ultimate health of our gut and immune and nervous systems is a direct result of what we put into our bodies and from where it came.
Dr. Maya believes that the answer to building up the resilience of our "inner terrain"—our microbiome, gut, organs, and immune, nervous, circulatory and lymphatic system—is to turn to the "outer terrain" all around us: our environment, including the food, soil, air, water, seeds, plants, animals, germs and microbes. She argues that human health actually reflects the relationship between each individual’s internal terrain and the external terrain to which they are exposed.
Cellular theory holds that most microbial diseases are caused by organisms already within the body of a normal individual; they only cause disease when a disturbance arises which upsets the body’s equilibrium. Some studies have suggested that exposure to more diverse microbes can actually inhibit the development of illness like asthma. Even certain parasites have shown beneficial effects when introduced into the bodies of those with inflammatory bowel disorders, and in the case of hookworms, of those with celiac disease.
Our bodies are an intricate complex of interwoven systems, operating in choreographed synchronicity until upset by exposure to chemical, physical or biological threats that trigger the cell danger response—the evolutionarily conserved metabolic response that protects cells from harm. Once those dangers are eliminated, a sequence of anti-inflammatory and regenerative pathways are activated to heal the cells and the body as a whole. However, when this danger response persists, whole body metabolism and the gut microbiome itself are disturbed, Dr. Maya says, impairing the performance of multiple organs.
If we understand that our gut, immune, brain and endocrine systems are indistinct within the complex human machine that is our "inner terrain," then we understand that everything in the "outer terrain" that affects our bodies is actually connected as well. Microbial health reflects soil health; soil health reflects plant health; plant health reflects animal health and the health of these ecosystems reflects human health.
Dr. Maya contends that this fundamental understanding means that dirt is therefore the foundation of resilience. Although somewhat shocking to hear, 3 to 5 pounds of our body weight is made up of microbes within and on our bodies. Thus, it is easy to imagine how fresh foods and the microbes which are naturally part of it can prevent and even reverse illness.
Nutrition comes from our food in the form of macro and micronutrients and phytonutrients (even in our drinks like tea), but nutrition also comes from microbes, including fungi, viruses, bacteria and parasites, and from the soil itself. An estimated 25 percent of the world’s biodiversity is contained within the soil, and Dr. Maya believes that the next generation of antibiotics will be derived from that treasure trove of biodiversity. Even adding spices to the diet adds biodiversity. And the environment has profound effects on the nutrition derived from seemingly similar foods. For example, eggs from pasture-raised hens have been shown to have more vitamin D and omega-3s than confinement eggs.
Dr. Maya suggests the solution is that we all "eat more dirt" by choosing organic or biodynamic produce, and eating fruits and vegetables with the peels on. She advocates for fermenting foods and for only eating animal products from animals that lived outdoors on pasture. Feed your soil with compost and mulch, not chemical fertilizers or pesticides. In fact, don’t even rake your leaves—mulch them. And wherever possible, play in the dirt. Spend hours anytime you can in the forests, parks and fields around you (the Japanese actually call it “forest bathing”). Use essential oils in place of hand sanitizer, and embrace the environment around you for optimum health, she says.