We all know germaphobes. The people who consider their lives in danger unless they coat everything in their immediate vicinity with bacteria killing chemicals. These same people also won’t share cups, eat anything that’s fallen on the table, or have sex without an antibacterial condom (I was forced to wear one of these last week–I don’t want to talk about it). My point is, as a society, we’ve become obsessed with the idea of being overly hygienic out of fear of getting sick. It doesn’t help that we are inundated with advertising campaigns that are aimed towards making us feel dependent on cleaning products to keep our families safe. Sadly, just off the top of my head I can think of many brands because of the sheer number of ads on TV: Mr. Clean, Oxy, Scrubbing Bubbles, Lysol, Dawn, Softsoap, hell, I can name more cleaning products than I can name Kardashians (probably a good thing actually). And as you might have guessed, the antibacterial industry rakes in a cool billion dollars per year. Do we really need to sterilize our environment to live safely? And even more importantly, could these germ-killing products even be detrimental to our health?
The answer to the first question is easy: of course not. The answer to the second question? It is very likely. The human microbiome is a term that describes all of the tiny organisms that inhabit our bodies, participating in a mutually beneficial relationship with us. Incredibly, bacterial cells outnumber human cells ten to one! If we got rid of all these little homies, we would surely die. Despite all of the good that these organisms do for us, they have been vilified because of a tiny, tiny minority that are infectious and can cause us harm. Even as a scientist, the word bacteria still conjures up images of little devils burrowing through my skin and shitting on my insides. The cleaning industry has convinced us that if we do not rid our environment of all microbes, then we will surely contract AIDS and die a slow painful death.
With the understanding that humans are on dependent on bacteria for life, let’s consider a recent argument, termed the “Hygiene Hypothesis” or “Old Friends Hypothesis,” which suggests that being too clean may actually be bad for our health. These hypotheses rest on the observation that industrialized nations (like the US), with their much improved sanitation and health standards, actually have much higher rates of allergies and chronic inflammatory diseases than do developing nations. Amurrica! For example, asthma, allergies, inflammatory bowel disorder, Chron’s disease, and type 1 diabetes are all widely considered diseases of affluence. This basically means rich people are getting more sick than poor people. Show me the money? What’s even more interesting is that when people move from a developing country to a more industrialized one, their chance of getting the aforementioned diseases greatly increases. There seems to be an inverse relationship between how developed a nation is and how likely you are to have an autoimmune disease. But why?
This idea was first postulated in 1989 by a dude named David Strachan who noticed that kids who were more likely to be exposed to various microbes had a lower chance of getting hay fever (allergies). He concluded that kids who had lower rates of infection early on in life were more susceptible to diseases of the immune system. More rationale for the argument was provided by Graham Rook who presented the “Old Friends” hypothesis. Basically, he said that humans evolved with certain bacteria and viruses, some of which have been eliminated in today’s hyper-clean world. These microbes gave our immune system something to constantly fight against, and so it wouldn’t overreact to more harmless stimuli, like pollen. A commonly used analogy is that our immune system is like an army, and without any enemies, it will start shooting at anything that moves. That’s like a soldier going HAM and unloading a full magazine on a squirrel–not exactly an efficient use of our tax money right? Humans seem to have an immunity set point or threshold, whereby if a certain level of pathogen is detected, your body mounts an immune response. In today’s world, that threshold has been lowered because of our reduced exposure to bacteria and other microbes. Therefore, our bodies react to things that don’t actually pose any danger to us (like pollen) and mount inappropriate immune responses. Hyper hygiene has left us helpless against even the most minor of foreign substances.
So, TGL, are you saying that we should try our hardest to maximize our exposure to everything infectious in order to combat chronic inflammatory diseases? No, you little devil’s advocate. Is it okay to be wiping our asses with our hands and then putting them in our mouth? Of course not. The point here is not to say we should intentionally look for critters to put in our body, but to acknowledge that our hygiene is in excess. Being relatively clean will always come hand in hand with social obligations, but its emphasis is far overblown. It’s important that we begin to shed these irrational fears and worries of bacteria, microbes, or germs. Our homes don’t need to be cleaner than a hospital operating room. Let your kids play in the dirt and breathe in some of those geared bacteria we’ve been living with and depending on for our entire existence. It’s good for them.