Now more than ever, people are taking sanitation seriously. Antibacterial wipes and disinfectant cleaners are hard to find in stores, and hand soap and sanitizer are precious commodities. We’re making our environments more germ-free than ever, but is this helping our wellbeing, or harming it?
Based on recent research, doctors and researchers have arrived at a surprising hypothesis about our modern, ultra-sanitized world. Too much cleanliness may be causing us to develop allergies, asthma, inflammatory bowel diseases, and other autoimmune disorders.
The idea is that for many people in the developed world, a lack of exposure to bacteria, viruses, and allergens prevents the normal development of the immune system, ultimately increasing the chance of health issues later in life.
Thanks to the advances in medicine, construction, agriculture, and sanitation over the past few centuries, we have minimized interaction not just with harmful disease-causing agents, but also with friendly bacteria and parasites that helped to develop or “train” the immune system. This is not just because our homes are cleaner, but also because our families are smaller (fewer older children are bringing home germs), our food and water are sterile, and our milk is pasteurized. Many foods are even disinfected or irradiated to remove any risk of pathogens.
What does the immune system do when it’s not properly trained? It can end up overreacting to everyday things like dust mites or pollen. It develops allergies, chronic immune system attacks, and inflammation in a way that is counterproductive and dangerous.
The numbers prove this point. Adults who clean their houses with antibacterial sprays have higher asthma rates, and people who are more often exposed to triclosan (the active ingredient in antibacterial soap) have higher rates of allergies and hay fever. The percentage of children in the United States with a food allergy rose 50 percent between 1997–1999 and 2009–2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The jump in skin allergies was 69 percent during that period, leaving 12.5 percent of American children with eczema and other irritations. Kids who grow up on farms or have pets, meanwhile, have lower rates of allergies and asthma.
The overuse of antibacterial chemicals and medicines has also contributed to the development of superbugs – bacteria that have developed resistance. This means we are left with not only weaker immune systems, but stronger bugs to try to fight against.
How bacteria protect your health
Increased evidence for this hypothesis has come as scientists have awakened to the importance of “good” bacteria in general. The particular species living inside the body – collectively called the microbiome – may be involved in preventing obesity, diabetes, and perhaps even depression.
They also perform many important functions, such as setting up checks and balances in the immune system. White blood cells police the body, looking for infections, but they also limit the number of bacteria that grow there. Likewise, bacteria keep white blood cells from using too much force. Bacteria also help out by doing things cells are ill-equipped to do. For instance, bacteria break down carbohydrates (sugars) and toxins, and they help us absorb the fatty acids that cells need to grow. Bacteria help protect the cells in your intestines from invading pathogens and also promote repair of damaged tissue. Most importantly having good bacteria in your body means that bad bacteria don’t get a chance to grow and cause disease.
It’s clear that the right balance of bacteria is necessary for good health. While achieving a basic level of hygiene infrastructure was important for the modernization of our society, over-sanitizing our lifestyle and environment has taken us too far in the other direction.
If the problem is that we are too clean, then, hypothetically, the issue can be easily resolved. Children who don’t wash their hands, are exposed to pathogens regularly, and live in unclean conditions should be the healthiest. But this is not the case. A lack of sanitation doesn’t help our immune system and generally makes inflammation worse.
What we actually have is a biodiversity problem. Our overly sanitized, indoor-centered lives, and a Western diet rich in processed foods have depleted our biomes of the helpful bacteria and worms that should naturally live in our bodies. Scientists have identified the loss of biodiversity as being central to the high rates of inflammatory disease in the developed world.
After generations of living with toilets and water treatment facilities, some of the natural “wildlife” in our bodies has been driven to the point of extinction. Our loss of contact with soil and nature due to indoor working environments, along with the typical Western diet, has further depleted the diversity of the microbiome, which seriously degrades our immune function.
The problem is, we can’t just get them back. It’s important to note that the bacteria and viruses deposited on your shopping cart handle or the light switch at a hotel are hardly a viable replacement. They are generally dangerous and not the right type of bacteria that we need to bring back our natural immune strength. Those are often the germs of modern society that cause infection and inflammation.
How to re-balance your immune system
There are theories that introducing bacterial flora or even worms into the gut can restore the resilience of the pre-industrial immune systems our ancestors had, but in the meantime, most individuals interested in immune health will focus on factors that are risk-free, like avoiding chronic psychological stress, eating well and exercising, and watching out for vitamin D deficiency. Probiotic formulas, including bifidobacteria and lactobacilli that grow readily in milk, could help support biodiversity in our guts if we need to take antibiotics.
These factors, all within our control, are important for avoiding a wide range of inflammation-related diseases, including allergies, autoimmunity, depression, and cancer.
How clean does your home really need to be
If you use chemical cleaners regularly, consider changing your ways, as this type of excessive hygiene has contributed to the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and is unhealthy for the body. Mainstream cleaners contain chemicals that pollute indoor air quality and can leave behind an antibacterial residue, which may be appropriate for germ-heavy areas like the toilet and kitchen sink, but not every surface in the house.
Hygiene should be viewed as a critical tool for preventing infectious diseases – not a daily obsession. Experts say it’s not necessary to sterilize things with antibacterial products or create an incredibly hygienic environment, but rather use a “targeted hygiene” approach. Try to keep everything in perspective and use common sense.
Evidence suggests a combination of strategies, including natural childbirth, breastfeeding, increased social exposure (when it is safe to interact), less time spent indoors, diet, and appropriate antibiotic use, may help restore the microbiome and perhaps reduce risk of allergic disease.
Keep in mind, this hypothesis refers to times of general flu, allergies, and sickness. Different guidelines are in place regarding COVID-19, and it is important to follow all governmental restrictions.