How About Going A Little Easier on Those Germs?

Dr. Cindy Haines Health Guide
  • It's getting hard these days to find hand soap, dishwashing liquid, and spray cleaners at the store that don't proclaim their germ-killing strength. Maybe it's time to just leave most of this firepower on the shelf. And even, occasionally, getting your hands dirty.

    Down through history, much of the improvement in our lifespan has come from learning how to outsmart germs. Doctors learning to wash their hands between surgeries cut down infections in hospitals. Clean water supplies and proper sewage handling were also crucial developments for the public's health.

    But in a world that's disinfected and sanitized for your protection, our fear of germs may now be harming our health. I just read an interesting story about the so-called "hygiene hypothesis." This is an idea that's been around for some time now, though many people may not have heard about it yet.

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    In short, the hygiene hypothesis holds that mankind evolved in a stew of mud, dirty water, and feces. To deal with the germs and parasites that were passing into their bodies en masse, they developed highly attuned immune systems.

    Now that we wear shoes, drink chlorinated water, have our trash hauled off weekly, often work indoors, and live in homes that we blast with a different spray cleaner for every surface, our powerful immune systems don't have as much to do. How does an immune system spend its time when it doesn't have enough bacteria and worms to attack?

    Sometimes it may attack its owner instead.

    The hygiene hypothesis may help explain many cases of allergies and asthma and autoimmune diseases such as MS and inflammatory bowel disease.

    According to the story, people whose immune systems face more challenges - like those living on a farm, pet owners, or kids with a lot of siblings bringing germs home - may be less likely to come down with these conditions. Perhaps their immune systems stay occupied doing the job they were intended to do - just enough business killing germs without becoming overwhelmed - and they don't have time to get into mischief.

    It's not wise to abandon common sense when it comes to washing your hands after changing a dirty diaper or handling pet waste. And you should wash your hands before and after preparing food, and you should sanitize kitchen surfaces after you've been, say, cutting raw meat. But it probably is a good idea to expose yourself to dirt and other less-threatening sources of germs on a regular basis.

    So plant a garden, or jump around in a pile of leaves or wade in a creek with your kids. Maybe even make a mud pie (but don't eat it). Go ahead and keep your house clean, but don't go overboard with all these germ-killing products.

    Give your immune system a job to do! A busy immune system is a happy immune system.

     

    For even more tips on how to get better health and need the health care system less, check out: The New Prescription: How to Get the Best Health Care in a Broken System by Dr. Cynthia D. Haines, M.D. (Dr. Cindy Haines) and Eric Metcalf, M.P.H. This is a book about getting what you really want: better health on your own terms.

Published On: October 28, 2011