Once Bitten, Twice Shy
I just spent the last week in the north of Thailand which is known for its eco-resorts, mountain tribes, opium history and dirt. In fact, when traveling throughout parts of Asia, you notice that dirt is the most common thing, especially where people are living. It's the constant plodding around, crossing over, passing through and dragging around that turns everything into dirt. People think it's worms that create all our dirt, but in fact, we create much more simply by living. Now the reason I bring up dirt is because in the north of Thailand, as elsewhere, it isn't unusual for people to spend 75% of their day in dirt. Digging, sitting, cleaning and even cooking. Dirt gets into every crack and crevice and the only thing that keeps it in place are plants. But here in Thailand, plants equal jungle, and jungle entails other less savory elements, such as frogs, insects, snakes and even scorpions. It is normal for everyone, including and especially children, to experience a snake bite, a scorpion bite, various illnesses transmitted by insects, parasites and even fever diseases. It is the nature of this environment.
But the interesting thing is that despite all of this, people here live well into their 80's or 90's. Now they may not have any teeth, or they may be covered in cysts, or they may have lost their vision ... but very few of them are in the hospital and very few of them are taking medications every day. So the question is, is there a connection?
Despite the obviously unsanitary conditions, including open bamboo kitchens with flies, geckos, frogs, mosquitos and the occasional snake sitting next to your cornflakes box, people here seem to develop quite early a strong immunity that allows them to weather almost any illness that comes along. Most children have had quite serious fevers by the age of five, and in fact, the most common cause of death here is fever. Not cancer, not heart disease, not diabetes. In fact deaths from cancer in Thailand is 20% lower than in the United States and they are living just as long with more quality of life. And they're doing it in the dirt.
So is the over-sterilization of our environment and our lives actually limiting our immunity? Are we more susceptible to illness because we are "bitten" less often? This also carries over to the intestinal tract. I braved a night market which was the highlight of the week for one community. Now night entails lights obviously, which bring bugs, actually scores of flying, biting insects, all of which seemed to attack me and leave the Thais in relative peace. Does their body have some sort of acquired immunity that prevents these ravenous clouds of pests from seeking them out? Is it something about what they eat that affects their biochemistry making them unappetizing targets?
Which brings me to food. Besides knock-offs of every designer you could think of, and a rather depressing duplicate of a bag I just bought at home for $50.00 that here was 300 baht (about $10.00), there are aisles and aisles of food. Grilling, sauteing, frying, steaming - the smells are overwhelming ... especially when you get to the Durian fruit which looks like a hedgehog and smells like a decomposing body. They said that it smells like hell and tastes like heaven - sure. But the booth selling plates of insects was mobbed, plus lizard on a stick grilled with a sauce. It must be quite a sauce...
But the point here is that food choices are another way of programming immunity, and our tastes are obviously different from person to person and culture to culture. Does that not only program our immunity, but signal it and support it? The obvious challenges to our ideas of health and sanitation may actually be a lost form of immune development, and I'm not saying I want an open-air kitchen or to wake up with a frog in bed with me (literally), but we may want to think twice about sterilizing everything in sight and keeping our children from the dirt that they inherently love!