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To Prevent Illness: Love, Stress, and Microbes

By Lauren McClain

What makes a strong immune system? Can you strengthen your family’s immune system? At this time of year, we’re all considering the mighty immune warriors anew. Elderberry syrup, anyone? Airborne? Echinacea?

According to Maya Shetreat-Klein, author of The Dirt Cure and the article “Are We Making Our Children Sick?” in the winter 2016 issue of Pathways, what makes an immune system stronger is the same thing that makes your mechanical body stronger—exercise.

Exposure to microbes encourages that immune system to work, thereby teaching and exercising it.

Those familiar with the research of Dr. Michel Odent will remember his injunction that newborn babies need three things: love, stress, and microbes. So it is no surprise that children, even adults, need the same.

If you’re in the business of keeping your family healthy, staying inside to avoid germs and practicing diligent hand-washing may not be your best bet.

Long term, at least, what keeps us healthy is love, stress, and microbes. Let’s look at each one individually.

Love One of the most valuable things I’ve read for childhood wellness was about ‘heartsickness.’ When kids are acting or feeling low (behaviors vary for each child), it helps to have a love break to heal heartsickness. Maybe a child is under the weather or is having too many feelings to handle on their own. When this happens, we cuddle, go slow, stay home, set aside tasks, and focus on listening and loving.

Without love, it’s harder for the body to do what it must.  Hospice and hospital workers know that when a patient expresses love for others and/or is surrounded by other’s love, s/he is more likely to recover. Love is what holds us together while our bodies do battle.

Stress Small amounts of stress are healthy. Blood flows, brains wake up, and hormones practice working together. You may have heard that it is healthy to fast periodically. The absence of food is a stress on your body, but a good one that helps your digestive system and microbiome balance. Stress is the reason you run or lift weights or hold a difficult yoga pose. Muscular stress builds muscular strength. Immune stress builds immune strength. A fever means your child is fighting the illness. Exposure is not the enemy.

Microbes Are you a good microbe or a bad microbe? That is the question. Or is it? If you curb your body’s exposure to microbes, you stunt your immune strength and the growth of your microbiome. Modern, western habits have us inside, sterile, and drugged. Some of the microbes we could be exposed to would build our immune systems by adding to our personal microbiome or the makeup of our gut. Microbes in the gut are increasingly recognized as the seat of the immune system. If we never let our immune system fight germs, its fighting capabilities are weakened. This means we may have to ‘get sick’ and allow our bodies to do the fighting. Without this natural stress–a variety of microbes to buoy our immune system or use as target practice–we become weaker.

“But I don’t want to get sick!” If we’re talking explicitly about getting sick, the question of whether it’s a good microbe or bad microbe is not half as important as the question: Where does the microbe fall? After all, I can scatter weed seeds or tomato seeds, but what grows depends on the environment I plant it in and how I tend it. Your inner garden and gardener have more to do with what grows in you than does what you breathe in or, in the case of my toddler, lick up off the ALDI floor.

As Peggy O’Mara says, “Many people mistakenly believe that germs cause colds and other infectious illnesses. The state of our immune system, however, is what really determines whether or not we get sick. The specific bacteria or virus is not nearly as important as the medium in which it is allowed to flourish.”

What can we do? Increase your exposure! A lack of diversity in exposure can cause the immune system to start freaking out. “There must be a bad guy here somewhere!” This immune confusion can cause inflammation and lead to chronic issues, notably allergies, eczema, and other autoimmune problems.

Exposure to microbes increases when you spend more time outside. Spend time around animals, go hiking, camping, or sit in the woods. Let your kids crawl on the ground and play with dirt. Just the fresh air has microbial benefits.

Eat fresh, especially raw foods. Microbes are very often introduced through the mouth. If everything you eat is cooked, canned, or baked, your exposure is very limited.

Don’t obliterate everything by using bleach, sanitizer, and antibiotics at every turn. Those things have their places, but they also contribute to problems.

Another way to preserve immunity is to remove food chemicals from your body. Man-made chemicals added to food act as a kind of Agent Orange to your inner garden.

Avoid the Fatal Five in your food: preservatives, dyes, high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, and MSG.

 (NOTE: I made that up–Fatal Five. If you think it’s too strong I also toyed with Filthy Five. Thought it would make a good meme.)

Your incredible body Sending your internal soldiers off to fight foreign enemies can be scary. Having a sick child is uncomfortable, sure, but it’s considerably less so when you think of it as strengthening exercise. As biology scholar Lewis Thomas says, we ought to “respect the durability and sheer power of the human organism….and [celebrate] the absolute marvel of good health that is the real lot of most of us, most of the time.”

To self-healing! Here’s to a cuddly, comfortable winter!


Lauren is a childbirth educator (Birth Boot Camp) and the author of the Breech Baby Handbook. She owns Better Birth Graphics, a shop full of practical, intuitive birth media for professionals. Her work has been published in Mothering, Holistic Parenting Magazine, Birth Issues, True Birth, Mama Birth, and elsewhere. She lives in Maryland with her family of five.