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Eat Dirt and ... Live?
That's the philosophy of Patricia Burke, one of 25 healthy people Gene Stone interviewed for his new book, The Secrets of People Who Never Get Sick.
The "never" in the title is an exaggeration. These are people who occasionally feel a bit under the weather. What they don't do is suffer from the regular, often severe, colds, flus and fevers.
Stone himself swears he hasn't been sick since he added a few of the secrets to his healthy routine (he exercises regularly and is a vegan).
"It used to be 'oy vey, I feel terrible. How terrible do you feel?' " he says. "I want it to be 'I feel great. Here's why.' The idea is to get people to be proactive, not reactive. To have them be responsible for their own health."
Whether based on common sense, an old wives' tale or a Jewish mother's wisdom (chicken soup, it turns out, really does have health benefits), each of the 25 secrets in the book was chosen because it has a scientific basis. They're also cheap or free.
"At some point, people stopped thinking of foods or spices as healers. They turned to pills -- they take pills, more pills and pills to counterbalance those pills," says Stone. "People ignore the wisdom of the ages because there's no $5 billion study evaluating it, because there's no money to be made from it."
Burke, the dirt-eater, doesn't sit in her yard with a spoon. But she does recommend eating veggies straight from the garden after only a light rinse, popping food in your mouth after it falls on the floor, and limiting hand-washing.
An avid traveler, she also drinks from South African rivers, sips mare's milk in Mongolia and chows down on "mush" in Zimbabwe.
There's a method to her madness. According to the "hygiene hypothesis," the immune system needs to be exposed to germs in order to learn how to react to them. Antibodies need practice, or they go haywire.
Allergic diseases like eczema, hay fever and asthma, for example, are triggered when the immune system mistakes harmless microbes for harmful pathogens, and tries to fight them.
In other words, you can be too clean -- hence, Burke's quest to mix a little dirt into her day.
Of course there's always another option: picking your nose. On one hand, cold viruses primarily enter the body through mucous membranes in your nose, so digging around with a potentially virus-ridden finger is asking for trouble. But, keeping it a balanced argument, Stone adds that at least one doctor, a Friedrich Bischinger in Austria, advocates nose-picking as a way to keep the nose clean.
Bischinger also suggests eating what you pick in order to introduce those germs to your immune system -- the hygiene hypothesis.
Rachel Hill would be repulsed.
Hill, star of the book's Chapter 10, swears by germ avoidance. She holds her breath when someone sneezes, keeps her gloves on when touching handrails, and washes her hands frequently.
And even though Hill is an environmental consultant who spends much of her time outdoors in harsh climates, she never gets sick.
It's no mistake that Hill and Burke contradict each other. Stone is the first to admit that for each piece of evidence backing up one of the secrets, there's another refuting it.
All in the Mind?
But the common thread is that the people promoting these secrets truly believe they work -- which, Stone suggests, might be what makes them work.
Despite the interviews, advice and layers of scientific research woven into the book, The Secrets of People Who Never Get Sick took Stone only two years to put together, thanks to an ample head start.
He's been writing about health for several years, experimenting with just about every "tip, technique and tonic" out there.
Stone has also ghostwritten more than 30 books, including New York Times bestsellers for CNN executive vice president Gail Evans and vegan firefighter Rip Esselstyn. Evans' and Esselstyn's health secrets -- maintaining a positive attitude and eating a plant-based diet, respectively -- are chronicled in The Secrets of People Who Never Get Sick.
Other staying-healthy tricks espoused in the book include taking icy-cold showers, eating garlic, dunking your head in hydrogen peroxide, lifting weights, cultivating spirituality and napping.
Too busy to take your daily nap after chomping on a clove of garlic? Don't worry.
Consistency is important to making these secrets work, but one slip won't render them ineffective. Stone, for example, calls himself a "cheat vegan," since he enjoys the occasional piece of fish or nibble of cheese if a social situation calls for it.
"I'm a pragmatist. I just want people to be more aware of their health choices. To take care of themselves," he says. "If everybody did one thing from the book, I'd be thrilled."