The Health Benefits of Eating Dirt

May 2004

This month thought I'd cover the health benefits of eating dirt.

It's true--eating dirt is good for kids. I read it on the Internet.

Let's face it, there's a lot of information out there, some of it excellent and some of it wacky. Your health is important, so you'll want to be discriminative when you're accessing health information online.

I thought it would be useful to survey some of the best sites and to highlight ways of evaluating the quality of a site's information.

"Consumers can easily be misled by incomplete, inaccurate, outdated, even outright biased health information they find on the Internet," said Beau Brendler, director of Consumer WebWatch, in a recent press release about a study that found problems with access to credible health information online.

One of the best resources for reliable health information is MayoClinic.com. Of course, it has a database of diseases and conditions, like many health sites. But it also has lots of wonderful, practical information.

A main menu selection is "Healthy Living," with categories such as Baby's Health, Complementary & Alternative Medicine, Food & Nutrition, Men's Health, Sleep, Women's Health, and Working life. The section on Men's Health begins with some real basics, such as "Men: What's normal, what's not, as you age." Other sections include a First-Aid Guide and Health Tools.

Another top health site is WebMD. One useful section is the "Check Symptons," which helps you determine what to do about your symptoms by asking you a series of questions.

Other special features include slideshows, illustrated guides, calculators (such as calculating Body Mass Index). The site also has a dozens and dozens of message boards on specific health topics that let you ask questions and get advice from WebMD's experts.

These are two solid mainstream sites. However, even though mainstream medicine is seeing the light in areas such as diet and prevention, lots of health issues are on the fringes of mainstream medicine. Sometimes you're forced by circumstances to go look for something else. The big question is, how do you evaluate the information?

The National Cancer Institute has a valuable web page entitled "How to Evaluate Health Information on the Internet: Questions and Answers". The information isn't specifically related to cancer but rather offers general advice on evaluating web sites. Key questions to ask include who runs the web site, who pays for the web site, and whether sources are clearly identified.

Also, HealthWeb is a site put online by medical librarians that has the goal of offering links to web sites with the best health information. The section on Alternative Medicine is a good first stop to find web sites related to alternative approaches. They give an annotated list of about a dozen links to metasites--that is, portals related to alternative approaches.

The resources mentioned include the Alternative Medicine Home Page, put online by medical librarians at the University of Pittsburgh. It not only has a directory of links to web sites and databases, but also lists e-mail and newsgroup discussions.

The site that impresses me the most is HealthWorld Online--a truly amazing resource. Like the mainstream sites mentioned above, it's a good starting point for information about healthy living, but in this case with a focus on self-managed care and alternative approaches. It has sections such as Health Woman, Healthy Man, Healthy Child, and Healthy Aging that including informative articles and voluminous resources.

HealthWorld has a database related to health conditions, but in this case offering alternative solutions. In addition, the Herbal Medicine Center offers a Materia Medica, a database of herbs and their specific uses.

Sometimes the road to health is fostered by simply interacting with others with the same condition. Begin by assuming that there are many discussion groups on the specific topic that interests you. Sometimes you can find them on web sites devoted to that topic. Other times, you might want to try a general source of discussion groups, such as Yahoo Groups, which has over 1,700 discussions just in the area of alternative medicine.

So what about the health benefits of eating dirt? A post in a discussion group on the WebMD site says that it's probably OK to allow a child to touch surfaces and to pick up things to put in his mouth because it helps build up the immune system by creating antibodies. Makes sense, and WebMD is a reputable site. But I couldn't find a way to determine the expertise of the poster. True or not? Don't know.

© 2004 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

Healthline.com is another site you could visit if looking for medical information, whether you're trying to find yourself some health info related to things like type 2 diabetes or ranging from that to pregnancy information, you can find plenty in Healthline.com's health articles. 


E-mail Jim Karpen