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Dirt smart

by Frank Forencich on May 26, 2010

Up to now, it’s all been hippie-talk. Let’s get back to the earth, they all say. It’s good for your body and good for your spirit.  And it not just the hippies either. Native people have always advocated contact with the Earth, for reasons of their own. Walk barefoot on the ground and stay in touch with the source of life.

Well now it’s time for science to get into the act. As it turns out, there’s an actual physical-biological connection between dirt and performance. We’ve known for a long time that contact with soil bacteria primes the immune system to “learn” about foreign pathogens. This “hygiene hypothesis” suggests that our modern super-clean, insulated style of living is actually dangerous for our bodies and may promote diseases such as asthma.

But it’s more than just immunity. Two recent studies have found strong associations between dirt and mental performance. Mycobacterium vaccae is a natural soil bacterium that appears to increase cognitive performance in rodents, probably by affecting the serotonin system. It also appears to elevate mood, similar to the effect of an anti-depressant.

“Can Bacteria Make You Smarter?” ScienceDaily (May 25, 2010)

“Getting Dirty May Lift Your Mood” ScienceDaily (Apr. 10, 2007)

Of course, from a natural-history perspective, this all fits. Since humans evolved in high-touch natural environments, it makes sense to suppose that our bodies would be massively connected to the microbial world. When we sever that contact as we’ve done with modern barriers and insulation, we should not be surprised to find a wide-range of negative effects on our bodies. These discoveries are just the beginning.

So take your shoes off and do some barefooting this summer. Your body wants dirt.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Colin Pistell May 26, 2010 at 7:46 am

Great post – I’ve certainly noticed a difference in my mood since I started barefooting. And I haven’t gotten sick in a really long time… even during the swine flu breakout at UNC last year.

Two things come to mind: One, as great as Vibrum Fivefingers are, they’re not barefoot – a lot of people seem to think that fivefingers are “close enough.” To get the benefits that you’re talking about, we all need to try actually being barefoot. And two, for those of us who cannot run or are uncomfortable walking around without anything on our feet, gardening is a great way to get your daily dose of dirt – assuming you’re actually gardening and not just spraying Roundup everywhere. Growing some of your own food is a powerful way to connect to the earth – and it’s really not hard!

Josh May 26, 2010 at 10:07 am


Barefoot is barefoot, and, since we ARE dirt, dirt is good for us. As we used to say when we’d drop our ice cream cone on the playground back in the day – “God made dirt, so dirt don’t hurt.”

Martin Zucker May 26, 2010 at 3:59 pm

There is indeed an amazing energetic connection that the Earth provides, when you are barefoot that even barefooters don’t realize how medically significant it is. Mood upliftment is just the tip of the iceberg. How about better sleep, less pain, more energy, faster recovery from injury. These are the marquee benefits that appear in a new book I have had the privilege to co-author entitled Earthing:The Most Important Health Discovery Ever? For more information on this landmark discovery, check out the book, or go to the website, or read the blog put up yesterday on the Psychology Today blogsite:
You will be amazed.
There are definitely good reasons why Colin Pistell hasn’t gotten sick in a while.
Connect to the Earth and heal!
Martin Zucker

Mick Dodge May 26, 2010 at 4:58 pm

What happens to a plant when you leave it in a flower pot to long? It becomes root bound. It is the same for our neural roots. Here at the Exuberant Animal Foot Camp, known as Tokitae and will be opening on the summer solstice. We share a practice of transplanting our naked “soles” into the “soil”, exploring the “soul” of movement and form.
So if you wish to take the Barefoot Professors advice and get down and dirty with your soles, but feel your feet are to sensitive. Then come and bring your Tender soles and we will show you how they will become more sensitive.
But be aware! There is a danger in stepping out of “flower pots” and rooting into the soil, stepping out of denial and paying attention. It ignites a desire a craving for dirty soles, a quest to connect to your primal (prime animal) movement, growing your enternal organs and unseen organizations into the sensous oragnics of diversity, an adventure that awaits the “defeeted” and root bound.


Mick Dodge May 27, 2010 at 6:31 am

Yoish! Found some gardening advice in the book Earthing that is useful guidance in transplanting your “soles” into good “soil”.

“The old people came literally to love the soil. They sat on the ground with the feeling of being close to the mothering power. It was good for the skin to touch the Earth, and the old people liked to remove their moccasins and walk with their bare feet on the sacred Earth. The soil was soothing, strengthering, cleansing, and healing.”

Luther Standing Bear
Lakota Sioux, Tribal Leader


Aaron Schwenzfeier May 27, 2010 at 6:34 am

Good stuff Frank, thanks!

You’re absolutely right, these discoveries are just the beginning.

Martin Zucker May 27, 2010 at 7:21 am

You are right about the body being connected to the microbial environment. That is part of the picture. There is an immense connection between our immediate natural electrical environment–the negatively charged surface of the planet–and our bodies. We evolved with these connections and, as you say, we have insulated ourselves from them artificially. In my new book, Earthing, evidence is presented that the modern disconnect may be causing major health problems. I invite you to check out the book. You will be amazed at the revelations and the power of reconnecting with the Earth. There is also a terrific essay written by a French agronomist on our website at Go to the research section and look for the essay by Matheo Tavera. It is long, but it will set off a light bulb in your head. We are totally connected to the Earth, microbes and all.
Martin Zucker
Co-author, Earthing:The Most Important Health Discovery Ever?

skye nacel June 7, 2010 at 3:17 am

Great article Frank and great feedback from others here, very cool. It is still important to be in touch with all our elements of touch, from head to toe and not just take our shoes off in a pristine park and call it good.
During my classes outdoors, people are amazed and sometimes initially mortified that i want them to hold onto a tree, have their bodies on the ground, crawl through the woods and get dirty, haul “dirty” logs, climb sand piles and navigate mud, rocks and all natural elements that the woods abundantly offer. But they seem to always come through it all with a stoke and re-invigorated approach and mindset.
I recently did some “extreme barefooting” in Central America, navigating burnt corn fields full of animal waste, trash, glass and critters of unknown powers. Playing soccer with locals not on fields but in the wilds with hazards everywhere and my feet took on their natural instincts and provided me with protection, stability and a “sense of sensitivity” that allowed me to push my own limits.
By the time i would get to the water after miles of tromping along in the dirt, my feet would glue themselves to my surfboard with strength and dexterity.
This continues here in the mountains of Vermont and its not because some silly book said i should do it. just listened to my body and it has led the way. hope it does the same for everyone.
get dirty, ride a bike in the woods, climb a tree, crawl through the woods, get your hands strong and rough(everyone!) and hell, get some dirt under those nails.
isn’t it a joy to be alive?!

Darren August 30, 2010 at 1:11 am

All so true. Thanks for sharing, thanks for baring!
For those who may not know about it, check out “The Barefoot Book” by Daniel Howell. See review here:

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