Go Ahead - Get Dirty!
The main message that we seem to get from most household product companies is that it’s a good idea to sanitize. There are sprays for the kitchen, for the bathroom, stuff to sanitize surfaces and doorknobs, toys, hand sanitizers, antibacterial soaps, even germ fighting air fresheners. We are being told that the bacteria and viruses in our environment need to be eliminated, or else we’ll get sick. Is that true? Are people who sanitize their lives less sick? Yes and no.
Over the centuries, sanitation has done wonders for the world by dramatically reducing death from infection, but there’s a flip-side. Other health concerns have become more prominent - specifically what are known as atopic conditions. These include eczema, asthma, hay fever, and other allergies whose incidence is higher than ever before.
A theory called the hygiene hypothesis provides an explanation as to why that is. Essentially, it explains that humans have evolved in a close relationship with microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, worms, and parasites. Having eradiated many of these organisms from our modern environment, the part of our immune system that has become adept at dealing with parasites, to put it simply, is out of a job. So instead of keeping worms under control, it is overreacting to benign things in the environment, such as pollen or certain foods.
Consider this. Developed countries that have controlled infection and nearly eradicated parasites have much higher incidence of asthma, allergies, eczema, and autoimmune diseases than countries that have poor standards of living where infection is still the main health concern.
While I’m certainly NOT recommending that we all take ourselves for some parasite milkshakes to stave off asthma, sterilizing everything is clearly not doing us any favors because it doesn’t match the evolutionary training our bodies have received. As always, moderation is key. Cleanliness is good, but sterilization is not (outside of hospitals and medical procedures). Wash your hands with regular soap and warm water, but skip the daily hand sanitizer. If your immune system is not compromised in any way, you can relax with the disinfecting sprays. Getting sick once in a while, though unpleasant, is not a bad thing – it allows us to adapt to pathogens in our environment, and allows our immune system to do its job.
So let the kids play outside and get dirty, make mud pies, crawl on the floor and get cozy with the family dog. In fact, get down there with them. Take your probiotics, especially after a round of antibiotics. Go camping. Try not to fuss over every cold, and don’t worry about sanitizing the world – consider it all good practice for the immune system.