We are being told that the bacteria and viruses that form a part of our environment need to be eliminated, or else our immune system will cause us to get sick.
Is that true? Are people who sanitize their lives less sick?
If you’ve ever watched any amount of television, you have no doubt come across a commercial for some household disinfected product.
In fact, the media seems to inundate us with messages about sanitizing our lives to kill all those pesky germs. Sprays for the kitchen, for the bathroom, stuff to sanitize the phones and door knobs, toys, and anything kids touch for that matter.
Is Our Culture Of Cleanliness Harming Our Immune System?
Public education and sanitation have done wonders for the world by dramatically reducing death from infection and overall longevity, but 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.
Consider The Science
One theory is called the hygiene hypothesis. Essentially, this theory explains that us humans have evolved with a close relationship with microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, worms, and parasites.
Having eradicated many of these organisms from our modern environment, the part of our immune system that is used to dealing with parasites, to put it simply, is bored and confused.
What it’s doing instead of battling worms is overreacting to benign things in the environment.
After all, ragweed pollen doesn’t pose a danger to our health, so why is the immune system going “haywire” over it? (Ha! Get it? Haywire over hay fever? I’ll be here all week…)
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 are the main health concern.
It seems as though over-sanitation has a dark side. As with everything in life – moderation to keep balance is key.
Striking A Balance
While I’m certainly NOT recommending that we all take ourselves and our kids for some parasite milkshakes to stave off asthma, sterilizing everything is not doing us any favours.
Cleanliness is good, but sterilization (outside of hospitals and medical procedures) is not. Wash hands with regular soap and warm water, but skip the daily hand sanitizer.
If your immune system is not compromised in any way (e.g., chemotherapy, HIV/AIDS, congenital immune disorders, etc), 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, form immunity, and allows our immune system to do its job (though getting sick often is a sign of a weakened immune system).
So let the kids play outside and get dirty, make mud pies and sand castles, crawl on the floor and get cozy with the family dog. Try not to fuss over every cold they geta nd don’t fuss about sanitizing their world – consider it all good practice for their immune systems.