How often do you see hand sanitizer at the check out counter in supermarkets? And how many people carry around their own mini-bottle of the stuff to randomly smear on their hands throughout the day. We’re told to kill all the germs ALL the time! Adverts on tv push products that “kill 99% of germs” and graphically illustrate evil-looking monsters to depict the bacteria that are apparently all out to get us – in every nook and cranny of our homes and on, seemingly, everything we touch. We should be disinfecting ourselves constantly if we are to survive!

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Now I am not saying that there aren’t some “bad” germs out there, or that it is not possible to catch diseases from unsanitary surroundings in the event of an outbreak of some vicious virus. Truth be told, it took me a while before I dared touch pretty much anything in public spaces after watching this movie.

Obviously hospitals, places where food is produced, toilets, etc need to be kept sanitary, but could the obsession with hyper-sanitization be swinging way too far in the other direction? Could our obsessive avoidance of dirt and bacteria be causing problems with the development of our immune-systems and thus lead to its over-activity when faced with benign antigens?

I have an old friend who, years ago, had a couple kids. She was already pretty obsessive careful about keeping her apartment clean, but upon the arrival of her kids I remember going over to her place and being shocked at how completely sterilized the place was. There wasn’t a spot of dirt anywhere, all surfaces gleamed with the freshly sanitized sheen of sterility and she told me how she would not leave the house for the first entire month after each kid was born – to ensure they would not be exposed to ANYTHING she hadn’t first doused in Lysol. She would not even allow friends to touch her kids until they were several months old. I remember at the time thinking this was a little over-the-top, and was not at all surprised to learn, years later, that her kids are now allergic to EVERYTHING and get sick at even the slightest whiff of a germ. This got me thinking about sanitization in general, and how we live in this artificially sterile world where we are no longer exposed to all the bacteria and dirt our ancestors were accustomed to living alongside, and how this affects us.

I got reading and came across some pretty interesting stuff.

There is a “hygiene hypothesis” which suggests that the increased prevalence in inflammatory disorders we see amongst people today is the result of reduced exposure to an adequate variety of microorganisms, and thus a defective regulation of our immune-systems. We evolved to coexist alongside a wide variety or microbiota, and this, now vastly reduced exposure, could play an important role in the increase in inflammatory diseases.

A study was carried out in 2012, in which the immune systems of “germ-free” mice was examined and compared with mice who had experienced normal exposure to microbes. The findings showed that the germ-free mice had significantly higher levels of inflammation in their lungs and colons (similar to asthma and colitis in humans). This was founds to be due to the hyperactivity of certain T cells linked to these conditions. Interestingly though, if these germ-free mice were then exposed to microbes very early in life, they eventually developed a normal immune system, as opposed to those only exposed to these same microbes later in their life who never fully recovered a fully functioning immune system.

This shows how crucial this exposure is early in life.

Just recently, Cambridge University published this piece, which describes finding a significant relationship between hygiene in wealthier nations and Alzheimer’s disease.

So what does this mean for us?

Do we follow this kids example and start shoveling dirt into our mouths?

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Possibly not. But it ought to make us a little more aware of how important these microbiota are to our health, and that we probably ought to stop vilifying the little critters so much. It is especially critical for children to be exposed to these microbes in their early years, starting as early on as birth itself. Caesarian sections, for example, mean that a child misses out on a crucial moment of this exposure. Same thing with not breast-feeding. And then the commonly flagrant exposure to antibiotics, which wreak havoc on the biodiversity of gut flora. There are obviously many factors that contribute to the development of auto-immune or inflammatory conditions, but this is definitely one that is easily avoidable.

So, whilst a nutrient-dense, whole-food diet is still the most important factor in maintaining good health, there are more factors at play. The issue of developing a healthy gut micro biome, although most critical in the earliest years of our lives, is still critical to our health throughout our lives. Thus, including probiotic fermented foods in the diet is so important.

Drink your kombucha, eat some sauerkraut, include gut-nourishing bone-broth, and try a little kefir in your diet, and don’t be afraid to get a little dirty. Oh, and if you INSIST on using a hand-sanitizer, read this first.

And, if you have kids, don’t worry about them splashing around in the mud, putting toys in their mouths or playing with animals. They are setting up their immune systems nicely for the future!