As we all spend more time indoors for the approaching winter, an important part of our lives will be focused on keeping our immune systems functioning at its best. Getting outside to spend time in the fresh air and sunlight is going to be a big part of that—but we learn this week that spending time in green spaces is especially important for children’s immunity.
Studying children at daycare centers, Finnish researchers at Natural Resources Institute saw a very important link between immune systems and exposure to bacteria from natural, green environments. In their investigations, children spent time in outdoor play areas that had just been upgraded. The previous play enclosures could be considered bare, consisting of gravel and play equipment and but no live trees or grass.
The daycares’ children, aged three to five years old, were encouraged to play in their newly renovated play spaces which had been accommodated with transplanted forest floors, shrubs, fruit bushes, and mosses for 90 minutes daily. After nearly a month, the researchers examined the microbiota in the children’s skin, blood, and intestinal systems.
Playing with the live vegetation in the new playgrounds boosted the diversity of the bacteria on the children’s skin by a third, and they produced more immunomodulating cells such as anti-inflammatory cytokines in their blood. The compositions of the bacteria in their intestinal system also changed, resulting in more robust populations of beneficial bacteria.
The immune system relies on balance in the bacteria throughout the body to protect the body from pathogens and harmful bacteria. The researchers believe that the exposure to live vegetation improved the immunity of the children and was reflected in the changes seen in their blood; including increased numbers of immune cells known as T cells, a type of white blood cell designed to defend and protect the body against invaders.
While germs and controlling the spread of bacteria and viruses prompts many daycares to adopt a sterile environment or use non-porous materials which can be disinfected easily, the benefits of having contact with soil and plants is shaping up to be an important way to help children grow a strong immune system.
Roslund, M., Puhakka, R., Grönroos, M., Nurminen, N., Oikarinen, S., Gazali, A., . . . Group, A. (2020, October 01). Biodiversity intervention enhances immune regulation and health-associated commensal microbiota among daycare children. Retrieved October 26, 2020, from https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/42/eaba2578