‘Let Them Eat Dirt- Saving Your Child from an Oversanitized World’ by B. Brett Finlay and Marie-Claire Attieta is a brilliant introduction to the world of microbes, especially if your understanding of their existence is thin on the ground. The style is accessible, entertaining, gently educational and friendly.
It’s a cheery manifesto urging parents to ditch antibacterial wipes, let your dog to lick your kids and let them roam the filthy outdoors for fun and sustenance. Obviously, their philosophy isn’t fuelled by a tabloid-ish nostalgia for simpler times, but a body of evidence that suggests that hygiene hysteria is proving counter-productive to our health.
In the 21st century, we might have shiny surfaces, Snapchat and no fear of or typhoid, but asthma, obesity and autoimmune diseases are on the rise in developed countries. Is there a connection between the microbes in our gut and these modern ailments? This book makes a strong case for it.
In many ways, ‘Let Them Eat Dirt’ is a shining example of effective science communication. It shares information and skilfully manages to refrain from academic detail that might be alienating, yet avoids being so ‘pop’ that it edges on dumb. Getting that balance right is easy to imagine, but a tricky to deliver. Margaret McFall-Ngai, who presented the 2016 SfAM Enviromental Microbiology Lecture is a fan of the book: “What a triumph. This book should be read by every pregnant woman, every parent, every paediatrician.”
Tips and truth
‘Let Them Eat Dirt’ is likely to be popular with expectant mothers, new parents and health-conscious couples who’re planning a child. As none of the above, it was possible to enjoy the content from an entirely objective perspective, with the added novelty of having a window into a realm that’s currently only theoretical.
The advantages of this? The content of this book didn’t make me anxious about the diet of my kids, or worry if the mother of my child is breast feeding or how best to treat my baby’s ear infection. Hypothetical problems are so much easier to bear than real ones.
This book tackles all the hot topics that currently revolve around the human microbiome and parenting; antimicrobial resistance, autism, vaginal seeding, probiotics, vaccines, allergies and the current dinner party fave; faecal transplants.
Obviously, the relationship between microbes and some of the aforementioned topics remains an area of debate and continuing research. In the chapter, ‘Gut-Feelings- Microbiota and the Brain’ the authors ponder links between microbes and ADHD, depression and schizophrenia.
Some may view sharing such theories as cavalier, others may view it as a brilliant way of sparking curiosity. After sharing research conducted on mice and rats, they offer welcome caveats.
‘Unfortunately, in humans there just aren’t sufficient studies yet to conclusively recommend a particular probiotic for certain conditions or brain health’
The book contemplates studies where faecal microbiota transplants (FMT) have been successful (to treat C. diff disease) and a few where there was no improvement to health (in adults for autism). The authors make clear that FMT carries risks, should only be done under medical supervision and that it’s a procedure that needs more research.
‘Let Them Eat Dirt’ features handy Dos and Don’ts at the end of each chapter that are no doubt a boon for those with short attention spans or too many distractions (like kids!). For example;
‘Don’t- believe everything you hear about the microbiome; trust your physician to stay on top of what’s been proven medically. It takes a long time from the eureka moment in the lab until something becomes common medical practice’
Loud and clear
What the book does brilliantly is hammer home the power and dangers of antibiotics. The consequences of this medication for mothers, their children and the world at large are discussed at length and from many angles. The likelihood is the authors’ broad and detailed discussion of antibiotics means that that via sheer volume of information, at least some of it is bound to sink in.
It’s a sad fact that while ‘antimicrobial resistance’ might not arouse the public’s imagination, mention a link between antibiotics and weight gain and they’ll down their Pringles and demand to know more.
Myths and mayhem
The challenge of dubious online misinformation versus hard scientific facts is best exemplified by the hoo-ha over the MMR vaccine. Not only does the book feature a chapter called ‘Vaccines Work!’- but the authors pull apart the urban myths around vaccines and highlight the dangers of listening to conspiracy theories. They also concede that the Internet spins a sturdy yarn.
‘In fact, some of the information we saw was somewhat compelling, and if we didn’t have a strong scientific background it wouldn’t be that hard to succumb to these theories’.
The book is consistently fascinating, provocative and enjoyable. Some might say the authors oversell the benefits of probiotics and FMT, but it would’ve been amiss not to highlight the ongoing research in these fields. In a post-truth era, the public’s gusto for hope in shaky arenas looks unlikely to subside, whether it’s in regards to homeopathy, ‘superfoods’ or political leaders. Is such blind optimism is driven by our microbiome? It’s a question the authors aren’t able to answer, but one that looks likely to be on the horizon.
Stewart Cumiskey – Press and Media Officer, Society for Applied Microbiology
‘Let Them Eat Dirt- Saving Your Child from an Oversanitized World’ by B. Brett Finlay and Marie-Claire Attieta is published by Windmill Books.
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