It’s not uncommon today for people to carry around small bottles of hand sanitizer wherever they go, wash their hands deliberately throughout the day, and scrub produce squeaky clean. Although many of us have been led to believe that all germs are potentially dangerous — and that the cleaner our diets, bodies and environments stay, the better — oversanitization in today’s society is actually a big problem, and those with hypochondria are very far from the only ones suffering from oversanitation symptoms.
First, it’s important to understand that exposure to germs and bacteria is not inherently bad. In fact, we need both to build up our resilience against illnesses. As a species, we have co-evolved with numerous types of bacterial microbes for millions of years and, as a result, have learned to successfully adapt to the types that populate our environments and food supply most.
The human body has nearly 10 times the amount of bacterial cells as it does human cells. From the time we are born, our bodies’ natural defense mechanisms are actually made stronger as we come into contact with an array of microbes. Ironically, while parents try to keep infants and young children protected from bacteria the most, for long-term immunity, microbial exposure during the earliest periods of life seems to be the most important.
Side Effects of an Oversantized Environment
As we’ve continued to improve hygiene and cleanliness in our society over the past several centuries, we’ve also had to pay a price. How so, you ask?
- Today, a higher percentage of children and average adults are dealing with immune systems that are overly sensitive to germs and hyperactive as a result.
- According to the American Academy of Allergies, Asthma & Immunology, rates of allergies, learning disabilities, infections and inflammatory bowel disease have only continued to climb despite better hygiene. (1)
- Oversanitizing can contribute to many different health issues like leaky gut syndrome, since a variety of diseases and symptoms stem from an unhealthy gut environment that’s lacking in “good bacteria.”
- According to a 2013 publication in the Journal of Gastroenterology & Hepatology, studies are now showing that wiping ourselves clean of beneficial microbial organisms — whether by taking antibiotics, over-cleaning our homes or never acquiring them in the first place — affects the microbiome in a way that can contribute to seasonal or food allergies, asthma, obesity, digestive issues like IBS, and autoimmune disorders. (2)
- Oversanitation might also make you more susceptible to nutrient deficiencies and digestive issues. For example, in certain animal studies, it’s been found that in germ-free rats, intestinal epithelial cells — those that line the gut and form a physical barrier that’s important for immunity — experience abnormal changes to microvilli (which help with nutrient absorption) and decreased rates of cell turnover compared to animals living in the wild.
- Bacteria in your digestive tract help with many important metabolic and hormonal functions, so if you can’t digest the foods you eat as well, it’s common to experience symptoms like constipation, bloating, food sensitivities, and deficiencies due to malabsorption of phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals.
- In fact, there’s a “hygiene hypothesis” that argues the increase in sanitization in today’s society is directly linked to growing rates of health problems caused by low immunity. (3)
The latter rose from studies published in the journal Science done by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, which showed that when mice are exposed to an increased number of bacteria (especially from a very young age), they wind up actually becoming more capable of warding off future health problems compared to mice who are kept in an oversanitized environment. (4)
How Can Exposure to Bacterial ‘Germs’ Actually Help Us?
So-called “good microbes,” which mostly populate our guts but also live on our skin or other body parts, interact with our DNA and help us regulate our appetite, facilitate in the digestion of nutrients, control our weight, and keep us protected from viruses, infections and parasites.
Since the completion of the Human Genome Project, the National Institutes of Health has been conducting studies in over 200 adults to sample bacteria from their mouths, nasal passages and skin in order to better understand how certain bacteria work to protect us or to put us at risk. (5)
One way in which germ exposure actually boosts the immune system is by turning down inflammatory responses over time. When we grow accustomed to living in an overly clean environment, our bodies develop a low threshold for bacteria exposure.
According to research presented at the 2013 Cell Symposia on Aging and Metabolism, when we come into contact with something our immune systems aren’t familiar with and perceive as threatening, we experience a higher-than-normal increase in the type of immune cells called “invariant natural killer T-cells.” (6, 7) High levels of killer T-cells are linked to inflammatory-related diseases of all sorts (asthma, ulcerative colitis, arthritis and so on).
So How Can Beef Up Our Immune Systems?
Just like during exercise, when our muscles need to go through a painful period in order to wind up growing back even stronger, strengthening our immune systems works in a similar way. Allowing ourselves to come into contact with new types of bacteria is essentially like a workout for the immune system that eventually pays off, even if it means dealing with some unwanted symptoms along the way (like being sick a few times when you’re a kid).
It’s not that we should strive to never wash our hands, clean our countertops, avoid being around sick people, or rinse our fruits and vegetables — we just want to give our bodies the credit they deserve, be careful not to overly sanitize our living spaces and step aside to allow our immune systems to do what they does best.
1. Spend more time outside
That’s where you’re exposed to natural molds, bacteria and fungus, plus getting more vitamin D from the sun.
2. Eat more probiotic-rich foods
Studies show that probiotics help stimulate your immune system by introducing sources of “good bacteria” into your diet that reduce inflammatory responses. (8) Probiotic foods include things like yogurt or kefir (cultured dairy products, which are fermented to grow “live and active cultures,” in other words healthy bacteria), fermented vegetables like sauerkraut or kimchi, or kombucha, which is a fermented tea.
3. Consume local, raw honey
Another great way to help prevent allergies and expose yourself to beneficial organisms or enzymes native to your environment. And as long as you’re buying mostly organic produce, you don’t need to worry about deeply cleaning everything.
4. Don’t hyperwash your veggies from the farmers’ market
Eating dirt can actually be a good thing (especially if it’s from local organic soil). Chances are the foods you’re eating are much freer from dirt and natural bacteria from your environment than those of your ancestors.
Elephant in the Room: The Antibiotic Problem
No. 5 on the list above is to avoid antibiotics when they aren’t totally necessary.
No doubt about it, the invention and improvement of antibiotics in combatting certain conditions has increased the human life span, but most experts feel that today antibiotics are drastically overused.
The unfortunate thing about taking antibiotics or giving them to our children is that they have unintentional consequences —like wiping out the body’s good bacteria and antibiotic resistance — and the potential to cause even more health problems down the road. The goal of taking antibiotics is to kill off harmful microbes that are causing an illness or infection, but in the process they also kill many bacteria we need. This therefore disrupts the delicate balance of organisms that make up of the human microbiome, where most of our immune system actually lives. After antibiotic treatment, resistant bacteria and germs might be left to grow and multiply quicker without the presence of the good bacteria to keep them in control.
The Centers For Disease Control has made it clear that antibiotics aren’t always the answer and that they don’t effectively fight infections caused by viruses like colds, flu, most sore throats, bronchitis, and many sinus and ear infections. (9)
Antibiotic resistance — caused by repeatedly using antibiotics, which increases the formation of drug-resistant bacteria — is now considered to be one of the most threatening health problems facing the public today. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Antimicrobial resistance threatens the effective prevention and treatment of an ever-increasing range of infections caused by bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi… Antimicrobial resistance is present in all parts of the world. New resistance mechanisms are emerging and spreading globally.”
According to a report published in TIME magazine, the No. 1 source of drug-resistant bacteria is the farming industry, which uses antibiotics to help prevent animals from becoming sick due to very harsh living conditions. (10) A scary statistic is that every year, nearly 2 million Americans get infections that cannot be treated with antibiotics, and sadly about 23,000 of them will die.
In the future, we hope to see the use of antibiotic drugs changes so they’re relied upon as a last-resort way to treat illnesses, instead of a first-line defense that can wind up doing more harm than good.
In the place of man-made antibiotics and sanitizers (like liquid soaps, household chemical sprays and hand lotions), we can expect health authorities to place more and more emphasis on the use of safer, natural antibacterials agents or cleansing products, such as plant-based essential oils. These can effectively help clean your home, lower severity of infections, fight inflammation and speed up wound healing, without raising the risk for side effects and resistance.
- Most of us are living remarkably germ-free lives compared to our ancestors, yet becoming sick more and more often. Today we come into contact less with soil outdoors, eat less local produce and probiotic foods that hold bacteria and residues of dirt, oversanitize our bodies, commonly use antibiotics, and use chemical antibacterials within our homes.
- Bacteria exposure is not always a bad thing to be avoided and actually helps us in many ways, since trillions of bacteria contribute to our inner microbiomes, which are responsible for much of our immunity. Our immune systems need practice, which is partially why rates of various illnesses have gone up as we’ve come to fear germs more and more.
- You can start to reverse the problem by laying off the hand sanitizers and harsh chemical cleaning products, only using antibiotics when totally necessary, and making some simple changes to your diet.