Dr. Maya Shetreat was first inspired to go into the field of psychoneuroimmunology (the study of how the mind affects our health and resistance to disease) by a documentary — but it wasn’t until she had a firsthand health scare with her own son that she made it her mission to educate people about the gut-brain-immune system connection. Today, the pediatric neurologist i.e. brain doctor for kids, and author of the book The Dirt Cure helps treat children by looking at food and the microbiome, rather than writing a prescription.
When Dr. Shetreat was close to finishing med school, her youngest child developed severe breathing issues at the same time that he reached a developmental plateau; he was falling all the time, and completely stopped gaining new vocabulary. Perhaps worst of all, nobody had any idea what to do or why it was happening. “All the great doctors and colleagues I took him to had nothing to say,” Dr. Shetreat remembers.
Ultimately, Dr. Shetreat figured out that he was severely allergic to soy. When she took him off soy, his breathing issues — and all other problems — completely reversed. At that point, she realized how powerful food could be, and how connected the gut, immune system, and brain really are.
She explains that when a typical pediatric neurologist sees a patient, they will take a very detailed history and do a very detailed exam, and then, more often than not, the child will be given a pharmaceutical as their treatment. “In my practice,” she says, “I did not want to write a prescription for every kid who walked through my door. I felt like there had to be another way.”
So she dove into the literature, looking at food and nutrition and herbs as a path to healing neurological conditions, and found an approach that works — and that remains the mainstay of her practice. Often, what she recommends to parents is cutting out processed foods as much as possible, because food chemicals such as MSG, aspartame, food dyes, and many others can be very disruptive to neurological health.
Patients come to her with a wide range of issues, from OCD to ADHD to autism to seizure disorders to conditions that nobody can figure out, and in the vast majority of cases, she is able to heal their symptoms without writing a prescription. “So often, she says, “the root cause is related to what the kids are eating.”
She also encourages parents to get their kids outside in nature, where they can be exposed to the diverse realm of microorganisms that help keep our microbiomes — and, in turn, our immune systems and brains — functioning properly. Her book, The Dirt Cure, drives this point home, explaining how important these microorganisms are to our health. In the book, she defines “dirt” in three ways:
Being exposed to germs and microbes
Eating fresh food from healthy soil
Getting out into nature
By paying attention to these three areas, she’s found a new way to heal neurological conditions that up until now have been treated only with pharmaceuticals — though it hasn’t been without pushback.
“Anytime that you practice differently than everyone else does it,” Dr. Shetreat says, “you’re going to get the shaming, you’re going to get angry colleagues.” Despite the fact that her book has over 700 scientific references, her colleagues still don’t look at it as pure science, which shows the uphill battle she’s fighting in the traditional medical landscape.
Watch our full interview with Dr. Shetreat to learn how our obsession with being “sterile” has made us less healthy, why touching a subway pole won’t give you the good kind of bacteria you want, exactly how clean your fruits and vegetables should ideally be, and why “all healing really comes from the earth.”