No, I’m not advocating renting a porn flick! I’m talking about germs, not smut. I’m also not suggesting wallowing in a pig sty or not sanitizing your cutting board after chopping chicken. What I am suggesting is that our modern world is actually a little too clean, and it would do us some good to relax some of our overzealous standards.
I recently read the book The Wild Life of Our Bodies, by Rob Dunn. The subtitle is Predators, Parasites, and Partners That Shape Who We Are Today, which suggests the premise that we evolved along with a host (or guests, actually) of different microbes and parasites in our bodies. Our immune system is designed to be constantly on guard for such invaders.
Now that we’ve cleaned up our environment so thoroughly with hand sanitizers, germ-killing household chemicals, antibiotic medications, even antibiotic clothing, our immune system, still trained to be on guard, is what I like to think of as “bored” and looking for something to do, so it attacks our own tissues. When our immune system engages in friendly fire, it’s called an autoimmune disease, and there is a modern epidemic of these: allergies, asthma, eczema, thyroid conditions, certain kinds of arthritis, multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes, to name just a few. Some even suggest that type 2 diabetes and obesity have an autoimmune component.
You’ve likely heard about antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, causing a rise in what are called “superbugs,” like MRSA. Again, I’m not suggesting that antibiotics are inherently bad. Many lives have been saved by them, including possibly my own, but I also know there were many times in the past that I’ve had a prescription for antibiotics filled for myself or my children when it wasn’t necessarily clear that we had a bacterial infection. Who knew?
The fact is, we are more bacterial than human when you consider that 9 out of 10 of the cells in and on our bodies are not us, but bacteria – the good ones. They’re much smaller than human cells, so volume-wise they don’t take up much space, but they exert a powerful influence. Keeping them healthy and happy is a good idea so that they, in turn, keep the bad bugs at bay.
There are three things to remember about bacteria:
- Antibiotics and antibacterials encourage resistant bad bugs.
- A hyper clean environment discourages our immune system from doing the job it was born to do.
- Probiotics help keep the balance of bacteria in our bodies on the beneficial side.
With these in mind, here are 5 things you can do to keep life a little more dirty, or at least not so sterile:
- Don’t use antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers, especially those with the ingredient tricolsan, which the FDA says can contribute to bacterial resistance. Wash, instead, with just soap and water.
- For cleaning your home, use natural products like vinegar and baking soda and essential oils, rather than harsh, toxic chemical cleaners.
- Regularly eat probiotic foods like live fermented sauerkraut and pickles, live culture yogurt and kefir (unsweetened preferably), miso and real sourdough bread. The good bacteria in these foods contribute to a healthy immune system.
- Reduce your consumption of processed foods. Your body doesn’t know what to do with them, but the bad bacteria love them and will flourish on a steady diet of their favorite food: sugar in all its forms.
- Allow your child or grandchild to play in the dirt and with animals. Don’t worry if the dog licks them! Children who live on farms and around animals have lower levels of allergies.
Photo by Håkan Dahlström