“Health is a function of a healthy terrain. A healthy terrain is messy, complex, and doesn’t come in a pill or a package. It is a process that begins with eating and living in alignment with the natural world. It’s the very messiness of the natural world that makes us resilient which is the key to robust health.”

Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein is a pediatric neurologist practicing in NYC. On his first birthday, her son became ill and began wheezing. For the next 10 months he suffered through asthma attacks, runny noses, and mysterious rashes despite numerous prescriptions to combat these problems. Even more frightening was his lack of cognitive growth from the time these symptoms first appeared. His physician mother began to look beyond conventional treatments which were not working. After determining that her son had a severe allergy to soy and eliminating it from his diet, Dr. Shetreat-Klein began to notice some improvements. Within a week, his symptoms disappeared and his language began to improve. With a new understanding of the interactions between the food we eat and the health of our bodies, Dr. Shetreat-Klein began to heal her son with high quality nutrient-dense food and tons of time playing outdoors, in the dirt.

When exposed to microbes, the body is given the chance to evaluate the challenge and decide the degree of threat and whether to launch an assault. These are critical lessons that strengthen the immune system for life-long health. But it is one most children are being denied because of the “death to all microbes” campaign from modern medicine and agribusiness. Instead of their immune system’s becoming stronger, children are becoming chronically ill.

The immune system begins in the gut. The gut contains a police force to search for invaders, chemical agents to kill enemies, and a wall to prevent the invasion from spreading. The gut and the brain are in constant communication. Your gut can sound the alarm and ask your brain and central nervous system to send reinforcements. But if your gut is out of balance or constantly sending out calls for reinforcements, brain function can become disordered and diminished. This results in behavioral changes as well as chronic inflammation and chronic disease.

In her book, The Dirt Cure, Shetreat-Klein draws a strong analogy between the terrain of her backyard garden and the terrain of a growing child. In both cases, “a balanced terrain provides powerful protection from whatever challenges nature doles out.” It is time to stop declaring war on germs with pesticides, hand sanitizers, and repeated doses of antibiotics, because growing healthy children cannot occur in a sterile terrain.   Just as a garden flourishes in nutrient-dense soil by being able to fight off bugs without the aid of insecticides, so do our children. When fed nutrient-dense food, their immune systems are able to fight off microbes that cause disease. Not only that, but diverse and abundant microbes are an integral part of the terrain; they flourish in our guts and are contributing to human health, in ways we are only beginning to understand.

Shetreat-Klein spends several chapters outlining the threats to the microbiome and gut health imposed by the industrialized food chain:

  • Food additives, preservatives, and dyes
  • Sugar
  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
  • Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)
  • Mercury levels in fish
  • Pharmaceuticals in drinking water
  • Pesticides, heavy metals and other toxins in the water supply

She then recommends ways to reduce these threats to the health of our children and help ill children heal with a very simple paradigm: heal the food, heal the gut, heal the brain and heal the child. She encourages parents to prepare healthy meals. She even includes recipes that are straightforward and simple to get everyone started on a diet based on nutrient-dense REAL (not processed) food. She encourages parents to find ways for their children to spend time outdoors, getting dirty, and coming into contact with all kinds of microbes.

Her advice is sound and can help build a strong foundation for children combating a myriad of childhood illnesses and challenges. I am sure that some children will experience profound changes in their well-being and behavior from the changes Shetreat-Klein suggests. I am equally sure that most children as well as their siblings and parents will notice positive if not profound changes. For some families, “cooking from scratch” and “going to the park” will not be easy, but I would encourage all my patients, especially those with developmental delays and chronic illness to embark on this journey. I would encourage them to read The Dirt Cure to help them understand why this is so important and help them take those first steps.

Here is a video featuring Dr. Shetreat-Klein;   more about nutrition and vision;  the food we eat causes genetic changes via epigenetics; and why play is so important to vision development.