Ever since the swine flu scare of 2009 people’s fear of bacteria and viruses has been un-necessarily increased. Anti-bacterial wipes and lotions sit by every cash register. Handy dispensers are in our schools, our workplaces and at grocery store entrances. Soaps, laundry detergents, household cleansers, anti-bacterial vacuum bags, bedding, toothbrushes, food containers and even chopsticks—people are arming themselves with the chemical equivalents of face masks and surgical gloves with frightening results.
Three-quarters of the soap sold in the US has antibacterial components, even though there is no evidence that they prevent the transmission of disease.
This false bubble of protection, in fact, contributes to the formation of superbugs and the reduced functioning of our immune systems. Having germ phobia actually makes you (and your children) sicker!
Interestingly enough, older people seem to be more resistant to the swine flu. Why? Having contracted other strains of the flu imbues them with natural antibodies. Children and young adults have proved more susceptible to the swine flu because their immune systems are not armed to combat the virus. Vaccinations produce the wrong immune response in our bodies and provide only a temporary buffer from health threats: actually contracting a disease or being exposed to bacteria or viruses arms our immune systems with real weapons of defense.
We’ve all heard about how antibiotic over-use has contributed to the development of superbugs. Antibiotics in our animal products, abuse of antibiotic prescriptions and vaccinations-gone-wild has increased the prevalence of antibiotics in our bodies, water and food supply.
A 2004 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine investigated household use of antibacterial products and the incidences of bugs like the common cold. The researchers found that people who used antibacterial products developed just as many colds, runny noses, sore throats, fever, and stomach bugs as did people who didn’t use them.
The resistance that bacteria and viruses have developed against antibiotics and antibacterials is now considered a global health crisis.
Bacteria and viruses propagate very rapidly with many genetic mutations. Environmental stressors (such as antibiotics and antibacterials) increase the likelihood of survival of specific mutations. Overexposure increases the amount of bacteria and viruses that are resistant to antibiotics and antibacterials.
Food-borne bacteria like Listeria have become increasingly resistant to the active components in antibiotics and antibacterials, and Staphylococcus bacteria have morphed into highly antibiotic-resistant bacteria because of overexposure to such components (like the recent prevalence of MRSA.)
The Hygiene Hypothesis
In 1989, researcher D.P. Strachen posed the “hygiene hypothesis.” He believed that the widespread use of antibiotics and vaccinations led to an increase in allergic diseases. Asthma cases, for instance, have more than doubled in past decades. 34 million Americans have asthma and 8 million of these are children.
David C. Sloane, a medical historian, explains how the importance of cleanliness emerged in the 1800’s, as public baths and water supplies were constructed.
Water sources were still limited, however, throughout the 19th century and many families still lived in homes with dirt floors.
The construction of cities and ideas of cleanliness were linked to civilized society in the 20th century, Sloane says, and adds: “This campaign had tremendous benefits, the most important of which has been the understanding and eradication of cholera and gastrointestinal disease linked to materials that can be found in dirt.”
Now, says Sloane, “researchers are beginning to believe that there may be negative consequences from that and are arguing that our immune systems aren’t as strong as they would be if children were interacting with more dirt.”
Dr. Robertson Parkman, who focuses on bone marrow transplantation and immune deficiencies, agrees with these researchers. He points out that in Third World countries; many people develop immunities to serious diseases because of their exposure. “In America,” Parkman says, “we immunize people.”
A study conducted by the University of Arizona in 2000 found that children who had many siblings and who attended daycare (increasing their exposure to germs) were less likely to have chronic respiratory issues.
Asthma is considered an “atopic” disorder. Atopy refers to allergic reactions and hypersensitivity to common substances.
Research has found higher rates of atopic disorders such as asthma, hay fever and skin diseases in those who have been overprotected from microorganisms.
Children who grow up on farms, for example, experience much less incidence of atopic disorders.
The development of the immune system can be likened to that of the brain. It needs exposure, exercise and education.
There is evidence that people who suffer from asthma, for instance, have immature and highly reactive immune systems.
When a child is born, their immune system is wired to react to anything (in the same way that they are wired to learn any language.) Their immune system cells are wildly sensitive and over the top in terms of readiness to learn.
In just the way neural pathways for language-learning decays once a child has learned a primary language, so too do immune system cells calm down once they’ve developed defenses against common invaders.
When antibacterials and antibiotics prevent this learning and the maturation of the immune system, the cells remain highly reactive. Worse, the window closes on this maturation, the same way it does for easy absorption of languages (neural pathways degrade from non-use after the age of five.) The cells of the immune system remain highly reactive after a certain age, no matter the exposure that occurs in later years.
Antibiotics and antibacterials alter the levels of naturally-occurring (and helpful) bacteria that exist in the body. They alter the immune response and reduce the maturation of T-helper cells.
Your body has two immune responses known as TH-1 and TH-2. A certain balance between TH-1 cells and TH-2 cells must be achieved to help the development of antibodies. Those with atopic disorders have imbalances of the two.
Researchers theorize that diet and sterile conditions increase the risk of atopic diseases and found that “hygiene and a westernized, semi-sterile diet may facilitate atopy by influencing the overall pattern of commensals and pathogens that stimulate the gut-associated lymphoid tissue.”
They conclude that an “antigenically rich (dirty) environment may be essential for normal immune maturation preventing atopic disease.”
Recent research by Northwestern University has found a link between reduced childhood exposure to antigens and the development of a number of diseases in adulthood.
“Contrary to assumptions related to earlier studies, our research suggests that ultra-clean, ultra-hygienic environments early in life may contribute to higher levels of inflammation as an adult, which in turn increases risks for a wide range of diseases,” says Thomas McDade, lead author of the study.
McDade points out that in decades of antibiotic and antibacterial use, inflammatory disorders and disease have thrived.
The study focused on CRPs, C-reactive proteins, which are an integral part of the immune system and high levels of which have been linked to a variety of disorders and disease. It followed Philippine mothers from the time of their pregnancy throughout their children’s lives for 5 years.
Philippines’, the researchers concluded, have 5-7 times a lower average of CRPs than Americans, even though they have higher rates of childhood disease.
“In the U.S we have this idea that we need to protect infants and children from microbes and pathogens at all possible costs,” lead researcher McDade concluded. “But we may be depriving developing immune networks of important environmental input needed to guide their function throughout childhood and into adulthood. Without this input, our research suggests, inflammation may be more likely to be poorly regulated and result in inflammatory responses that are overblown or more difficult to turn off once things get started.”
Researchers at the University of California San Diego have come up with similar results.
They found that “too-clean” kids lack the normal skin bacterium that prevents inflammation.
“These germs are actually good for us,” said Professor Richard Gallo, who led the research. Common bacterial species, known as staphylococci, which can cause inflammation when under the skin, are “good bacteria” when on the surface, where they can reduce inflammation.
Recent research has been investigating the role of triclosans in antibacterial products. Triclosans are the most prevalent antibacterial killer in most products, but it also kills human cells.
A recent study found that bacterium such as E. coli had common genetic mutations that easily dealt with tricolosan’s killing ability.
The mutant E. coli had 100 times the ability to resist triclosan than the strains that it was formulated for.
Most importantly, recent research has found that triclosans don’t protect people from disease and disorder any more than simple soap does.
The Bottom Line
Balance is everything. Germ-phobia prevents immune systems from developing warrior cells. Antibacterials and antibiotics leave the immune system highly reactive and unarmed.
Do you want your kids to dive into piles of dung? Absolutely not. Do you want them exposed to germs? Absolutely yes.