Is Your Cleaning Fixation Harming Your Immune System?

5 min read

mother gardening with kids

By John Wood

Are we too clean? 

It’s a question that has been debated for decades. 

In 1989, David Strachan, a professor of epidemiology at London’s St. George University, was the first person to apply the term “hygiene hypothesis” to the debate.

What is the “hygiene hypothesis”? According to an article published on “The hygiene hypothesis suggests that delays in exposure to normal bacteria in the body as well as disease-causing agents make a weaker immune response and that in turn, produces a weaker ability of the immune system to recognize and respond to suppress the inflammatory response when it is challenged.”

More credence was given to this theory when, in the early 1990s, Dr. Erika Von Mutius wanted to prove that children growing up in the less healthy cities of East Germany were suffering more from allergies and asthma than children growing up in cleaner, more modern areas of East German cities. But she discovered the exact opposite: The children in less healthy cities experienced fewer allergic reactions and fewer cases of asthma.

 “The immune system is like an athlete: To become strong and adept, it needs training and practice." — Dr. Erika Von Mutius

Dr. Mutius came to the conclusion that the children in the less healthy cities and children who grew up on farms had been exposed to more microbes and consequently had developed greater tolerance to the irritants that trigger asthma.

The hygiene hypothesis continues to be given credence by many in the medical community. For example, Dr. Russell Schierling talks about the validity of the hypothesis in his article, What Is The Hygiene Hypothesis And Why Is It The Most Important Aspect Of Your Health You’ve Never Heard Of?

In her article Dirt, Germs, and Other Friendly Filth, Mary Ruebush Ph.D., supports the hygiene hypothesis and Schierling’s stance: “The immune system is like an athlete: To become strong and adept, it needs training and practice. Hyper-sanitized environments deny it that opportunity and keep it sedentary and out of shape.” She even titles her first rule “The Child Who Eats the Most Dirt Wins.”

The result of this credentialed support (and actually having a name to identify it) gave the hygiene hypothesis immense credibility, and saw people reversing their views on dirt and its relationship to health and well-being. Articles appeared telling parents to let their kids play in the dirt and suggested taking them to a petting zoo or having them visit a place that had a farm-like environment. They also recommended getting a pet, and if it licked your child’s face — well that would be a good thing. In fact, it seems keeping your house less than spic-and-span clean is not a bad idea, because being too clean deprives you of “bad” microbes to train your immune system. Gardening is another great way to bolster your immune system: You’re not only producing fresh food and growing beautiful flowers and plants; you’re also training your immune system.

Case Closed?

Well, not so fast. While there are still plenty of people who are adamant that the hygiene hypothesis is 100% on the money, there are some who point to its shortcomings, bemoaning the “we’re too clean” message it sends.

One person who issued a dissent is science journalist Megan Scudellari (Dr. Schierling references her in his article). In an article published on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, science journalist Megan Scudellari quotes Graham Rook, an emeritus professor of medical microbiology at University College London, as saying, “We know an awful lot now about why our immune system’s regulation is not in terribly good shape, and it’s got absolutely nothing to do with hygiene.”

Rook argues that what is necessary to train and support your immune system is not increased exposure to infectious pathogens, but early exposure to a diverse range of friendly microbes. Rook named his theory the “Old Friends Hypothesis.”

Professor Sally Bloomfield from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine agrees with Rook’s assessment, stating that

“As health professionals our concern is that this continual promotion of the hygiene hypothesis misnomer is making the public confused and distrustful about hygiene, hence increasing the spread of infectious disease."

In the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health report Too Clean or Not Too Clean, they also question the validity of the hypothesis: “In our survey, we found that almost one in four (23%) of the public agreed with the statement ‘hygiene in the home is not important because children need to be exposed to harmful germs to build their immune system,’ which might suggest a belief that harmful infections can be beneficial to children’s development. This is a potentially harmful belief which could lead to children being exposed unnecessarily to harmful or even life-threatening infections.”

So are we being too clean for our own good? 

While there does not currently appear to be a consensus on that point, we do know that sunshine, fresh air, a nutritional diet and communing with nature are great ways to maintain and improve immune as well as overall health.

From the available scientific literature, it seems striking a happy medium is best: Pay attention to hygiene, but don’t overdo it.

Aside from living a healthy lifestyle, there are some additional ways you can  keep your immune system in fighting shape to ward off of infectious diseases:

  1. Don’t overuse antibiotics. An antibiotic is a medicine that inhibits the growth of or kills microorganisms. They are effective in treating bacterial infections (strep throat, Lyme disease, cholera, botulism, whooping cough, syphilis, etc.) not viral infections (cold, influenza, bronchitis, sinus, ear infections, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, measles, polio, rabies, etc.).

    According to the CDC, at least 30 percent of the antibiotics prescribed in the United States are unnecessary. What they found is that most of the unnecessary antibiotics prescribed by doctors were to treat viral infections. When you take too many antibiotics or take antibiotics for the wrong reasons, the antibiotics can cause something called “bacterial resistance” or “antibiotic resistance,” which is when the bacteria mutate and the antibiotics are no longer effective against them. If your doctor prescribes antibiotics, be sure to ask if the illness in question is viral or bacterial. Plus, let milder illnesses run their course (especially viral-based ones), as this will help prevent antibiotic resistance

  2. Don’t use antibacterial soaps. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the benefits of antibacterial soap have not been proven. Antibacterial soap has chemicals added to reduce bacterial infection. However, the overuse of them has been found to increase antibiotic-resistant bacteria — plus it kills all the good bacteria. Regular plain old soap and water works fine. Handwashing with soap and water gets rid of the worst bacterial offenders while keeping a healthy balance of your body’s good microorganisms. Remember, most common bugs (colds, flu and so on) are caused by viruses, not bacteria.
  3. Choose less toxic surface cleaners. For example, the EPA’s List of Approved SARS-CoV-2 Surface Disinfectant Products includes some natural and less toxic alternatives, such as those containing thymol
  4. Let minor illnesses run their course. If you’re sick with something minor such as a cold, your best strategy might be to stay home and let it run its course. Over-the-counter medication tends to suppress your body’s natural defense mechanisms and could actually slow your recovery.
  5. Practice "targeted hygiene.” This entails focusing on hygiene practices in places and situations where harmful microbes are likely to be spreading, such as during food handling, eating with your fingers, using the toilet, coughing, sneezing and nose-blowing, handling dirty clothing and linens, caring for pets, disposing of refuse and caring for an ill person.

Hopefully, as the research progresses, there will be a more definitive answer available down the road. In the meantime, it may be best to walk the line somewhere between dancing in the dirt and psychotically sanitizing.

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