Rethinking Our Thoughts on Germs
Our culture seems to be obsessed with what I call “The War on Germs.” We have an ingrained fascination with killing every potential virus or bacteria that comes into our environment. Much of this I believe is fueled by fancy marketing by large corporations.
Just look around your house and you can see the evidence. Almost all hand soaps are now “antibacterial” and just about all common household cleaning products are advertised to have strong anti-microbial properties. Television ads do a wonderful job of glorifying the spotless, totally sanitized home environment, from the bathroom to the kitchen, and even the air in our home.
Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that by promoting and glorifying the totally sanitized, germ-free environment, we are creating some very serious health risks.
First, I think it is important to understand where all of our germophobia comes from. As a culture, we are still promoting fears that originated in the early 1900s. Back then, the most common cause of death worldwide was infectious disease. Many things, from the Plague to tuberculosis smallpox, and even simple bacterial infections related to injury and childbirth were life threatening.
However, with the advent of antibiotics, deaths related to infectious disease were significantly reduced. Yet we still hold on to our fear of infectious disease, mainly due to the way household products are marketed to us. Currently, the most common causes of death are chronic diseases, primarily related to lifestyle factors. Heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes are the leading causes of death, while deaths related to infectious disease are extremely low.
Where is this “Germ War” getting us?
In trouble, would be my answer. One of the most significant rising public health issues we are facing today is related to antibiotic resistance. We have been overprescribing and overusing antibacterial products for the past 30 years and are now starting to really pay the price. MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is a bacterium that is highly resistant to antibiotic therapy and becoming more common in our population.
Hospitals are the most likely place to pick it up, due to the high level of sterility necessary to keep the hospital environment safe, but it is starting to show up more and more in other places, particularly schools. These infections can be very difficult to treat and symptoms can range from mild skin lesions to death. The medical community is also seeing rises in the antibiotic resistance in the treatment of common infections like sinus infections, ear infections and pneumonia. A resurgence of antibiotic resistant tuberculosis is also sweeping the national and world populations.
One interesting study points towards the idea that having more exposure to bacteria as a young child reduces the risk of heart disease and other dangerous conditions later in life. Data from a 22-year study carried out in the Philippines was analyzed by researches at Northwestern University in Illinois.
“Our research suggests that ultra-clean, ultra-hygienic environments early in life may contribute to higher levels of inflammation as an adult, which in turn increases risks for a wide range of diseases,” including cardiovascular disease, Thomas McDade, lead author of the study, said.
The findings suggest that exposure to ample amounts of bacteria as a child helps the immune system develop in a healthy way, just as exposure to ample amounts of learning stimuli helps the neurological system and brain to develop properly.
Our immune system plays many roles in regulating our health and is primarily responsible for triggering and halting the inflammation process. Without proper exposure to a wide variety of microbes during development, our immune system may mature in an unbalanced state. These unbalanced states are more likely to predispose us to inflammation, autoimmunity and allergies.
Scientific research has clearly demonstrated that allergies are most predominant in developed nations and much less common in third world and developing nations. Again, this is thought to be due to the lack of bacterial exposure our immune systems get at young age in developed nations. Also of interest is the correlation researchers have found between children that attend daycare from a young age and a reduced risk of childhood leukemia. There seems to be some clear advantage that the immune system gets by being exposed to ample amounts of bacteria starting a young age.
If you think about it, humans evolved for hundreds of thousands of years in close contact with our natural environment, and thus high amounts of microbial exposure. It would only make sense that cutting off that exposure may have some negative effects on development.
4 Ways to Safely Increase Bacterial Exposure
Of course it would not be advised to intentionally start exposing your children to harmful bacteria or very unsanitary environments, but there are ways to safely increase your child’s exposure to bacterial stimuli without significant risk.
1. Switch home soaps to non antibacterial.
There is very little evidence to suggest that the benefits of hand washing have anything to do with the antibacterial component of soaps. The benefits come from the surfactant action of the soap and its ability to remove microbes from your hands. With proper hand washing technique, a non anti-microbial soap will do just as good of a job.
2. Change home cleaning products to more naturally based cleaners that are not focused on anti-microbial properties.
Even just baking soda, vinegar and water make a very effective, cheap natural cleaner for most surfaces in your home. There are also a wide variety of naturally based, non-toxic cleaning products on the market today in response to the “green movement.” Using these products is much better for the environment, significantly reduces toxic air pollution in your home and creates a healthier bacterial balance in your environment. It is totally possible to have a neat, clean home without it being overly sanitized.
3. Use probiotics.
These friendly bacteria interact with the immune system without causing infection. They promote optimal immune function and bowel regularity and have been shown to reduce the occurrence of certain allergies in children. They can be found in food like yogurt, or taken as a dietary supplement.
4. Let your kids be kids.
It’s okay for your children to play in the dirt, eat food they just dropped on the floor and put their fingers in their mouth. We are now learning that these are the behaviors that build a strong immune system.
Dr. Passero completed four years of post-graduate medical education at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon after receiving a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Biology from the University of Colorado. Dr. Passero has trained with some of the nation’s leading doctors in the field of natural medicine. In his practice, Dr. Passero focuses on restoring harmony to both the body and mind using advanced protocols that incorporate herbal therapy, homeopathy, vitamin therapy and nutritional programs. Through education and guidance patients are able to unlock the natural healing power contained within each one of us. For more information, visit his website, Green Healing Wellness, or follow him on Facebook.