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Could a Healthy Fat Hidden in Dirt Help Fight Stress?

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Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have identified a soil-dwelling bacterium that contains an anti-inflammatory fat. What does that mean in layman’s terms? The possibility that playing in the dirt might be far more beneficial to those who have high levels of stress than living in a more sterile environment. Their discovery was published in the Psychopharmacology journal in late May 2019, and it’s picked up steam ever since.

According to research details, Mycobacterium vaccae could help quell disorders which are stress-related. In the grand scheme of things, it could bring researchers in this field that much closer to making a “stress vaccine” which is microbe-based. The theory that a greater exposure to microorganisms in one’s childhood would lead to improved immune systems and lower rates of asthma and allergies was first proposed in 1989 by David Strachan, a British scientist who offered up the “hygiene hypothesis.” Since that time, researchers have worked to refine the concept, suggesting that exposure to beneficial microbes in our environment and soil could have a positive impact on mental health.

Could a Healthy Fat Hidden in Dirt Help Fight Stress?

Photo: Schriever AFB

Senior study author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry told, “We think there is a special sauce driving the protective effects in this bacterium, and this fat is one of the main ingredients in that special sauce… The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation.” He theorizes that this move has placed humans at greater risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related disorders.

Could a Healthy Fat Hidden in Dirt Help Fight Stress?

Photo: USDA

This is great news for states such as Texas. Our high agricultural industry interests and pursuits encourage children and families to seek employment in rural environments, surrounded by the very types of bacteria studied and researched. Lowry, himself, has published several studies which attempt to demonstrate a link between our mental health and exposure to healthy bacteria. One suggested that kids raised in such surroundings grow up with immune systems which are more stress resilient. It also attempts to link this outcome to a potentially lower risk for mental illness as opposed to urban, pet-free environments.

Could a Healthy Fat Hidden in Dirt Help Fight Stress?

Photo: Public Domain Files

The long-term outcomes on the stress and mental health field for such a microorganism have yet to be fully realized. At present, when injected into rodents, it’s claimed that Mycobacterium vaccae seemed to alter their behavior similar to what an antidepressant would do. It’s also claimed that it had anti-inflammatory effects on their brains, which were long-lasting. As a result, Lowry envisions the development of a type of “stress vaccine” from the bacterium, which could possibly be used by soldiers, first responders, and those recognized to be in high-stress jobs, assisting them to fight off psychological damages of stress that often result in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).