Researchers uncovered a new health-related reason to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty—and it could mean promising things for the future!

dirt-covered hands
Credit: Maskot / Getty

When you think about it, the idea that playing around in the dirt could reduce stress isn't all that far-fetched. Fresh air, the crisp smell of overturned earth, and even moderate physical activity have all been shown to reduce stress. But there's more to dirt than that, and scientists have uncovered a useful and little-known link between dirt and stress relief.

For a few decades, scientists have been tossing around the "hygiene hypothesis," a theory that certain modern health problems like allergies and asthma are more common today, partly because much of the world is now so clean. Without exposure to low-level bacteria, children can't develop resistance to them, and so if they are eventually exposed, the results can be dire.

Researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder have taken that theory a step further by finding other stuff in dirt that can aid health. The new research focuses on one bacterium, Mycobacterium vaccae, and its fascinating and promising effects on mental health, especially in stress reduction.

A few years back, researchers started looking at this strange bacterium, which people naturally breathe in or ingest while out in nature. Those researchers found that when they injected some of these bacteria into mice (after the bacteria were inactive)-the mice navigated a maze twice as fast, and exhibited much less anxious behavior.

The new research from Colorado investigates a particular kind of anti-inflammatory fat in this bacterium. In fact, this fat not only reduces inflammation, but when injected before a stressful event, it actually prevents inflammation.

The lead researcher from Colorado, Christopher Lowry, dreams of creating a sort of anti-stress vaccine from this bacterium. The discovery of exactly how this all works, with this magical fat within a tiny organism, could make that dream one step closer to reality-it could lead to natural, preventative anti-stress medication.

In the meantime, get out and play in the dirt! It's good for you.


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