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Could Getting Dirty and Being Exposed to Germs Boost Your Health?
By Ruben Castaneda and Michael O. Schroeder
Sept. 19, 2019
It's commonplace today for people to clean their hands with antibacterial or antimicrobial soap, spray their bathrooms and kitchens with bleach and other sanitizers and wash their dishes and clothes at "germ-killing" settings. No doubt, it's an effective weapon for keeping germs at bay.
But that doesn't mean we should aim to have our families, including kids whose immune systems are still developing, avoid all germs – if there were even a way to do that. That's because a growing body of research is showing that microbes – microscopic organisms such as bacteria, fungi and viruses – and dirt are crucial for our well-being. Research indicates that early exposures to a variety of microbes may help lower the risk of developing conditions like asthma and allergies.
With the advent of the modern toilets and sewage systems in the early 1900s and subsequent widespread use of antibacterial soaps and other strong cleaning products, living conditions today are much more hygienic than they've ever been before. And that’s a problem, some germ experts say.
According to the hygiene hypothesis, people who grow up in areas with high levels of sanitation lack normal evolutionary exposure to microbes, pollen and other microscopic things in the environment. The lack of that exposure negatively affects the development of their immune system, according to the hypothesis.
“I’m a sound believer that we’re too clean of a society,” says Dr. Christopher Carpenter, section head of infectious diseases and international medicine at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan. “Our fear of germs has pushed us too far into trying to keep everything safe and sterile. That extreme is harming us more than it’s helping us.”
“We are getting far too sterile,” adds Kiran Krishnan, a microbiologist and chief scientific officer for Microbiome Labs, based in St. Augustine, Florida. “Exposure to microbes is an essential part of being human. Most of our immune system is comprised of tissue that requires activation by the microbes we’re exposed to. The immune system requires the presence of friendly bacteria to regulate its functions. Think of the immune system as an army, with tanks and missiles but no general to lead them. That’s the role friendly microbes play in your body; they’re the general.” The vast majority of microbes, 97% to 99%, are benign or beneficial, and they are the best protection to fight pathogenic microorganisms, Krishnan says.
Carpenter and Krishnan say they aren’t against good hygiene. Instead, they say that modern society has gone overboard with deploying antibacterial soap and germ-killing cleaning products, which indiscriminately kill germs – including good bacteria that help maintain a strong and diverse microbiome. Everyone has a microbiome, a collection of more than 100 trillion microbes that live on and in our body, the majority in our large intestine. “The more diverse your microbiome is, the healthier you are,” Krishnan says.
A study published in 2015 in Occupational & Environmental Medicine, an international peer-reviewed journal, studied the effects of the use of bleach – effective in killing germs – in the homes of more than 9,000 kids ages 6 to 12 in Spain, the Netherlands and Finland. The incidence of infections such as the flu, tonsillitis, sinusitis, bronchitis and pneumonia was more prevalent in the homes where bleach was used, the study found.
The hygiene hypothesis, however, is more than just about how sanitized modern households have grown. Kids come into contact with microbes in a variety of ways, including contact with family members and animals and just being outdoors. Your mom probably scolded you for playing in the dirt, but doing so may be healthy, according to a 2016 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers studied two traditional Christian farming groups: Amish schoolchildren and Hutterite kids. The Amish practice traditional farming, using hand-held tools, while the Hutterites use modern farm equipment, such as tractors and front loaders.
Compared to the Hutterite kids, the Amish group had a far lower prevalence of asthma, the study found. Researchers tested the blood of the kids in both groups and found the Amish children had significantly more white blood cells, which are key to fighting infections. One study author theorized the Amish kids had more white blood cells because they had a greater exposure to microbes, which boosted their immune system.
Going beyond cleanliness, other factors, from diet to overuse of antibiotics, also affect the balance of bugs in your microbiome. In addition, the decreasing lack of microbe exposure is also in part to the increasing rates of cesarean births, say proponents of the hygiene hypothesis. There's also evidence to show that what happens in utero and birth also has an impact on the bugs in their guts. Namely, research finds that vaginal birth exposes children to healthy microbes that help to establish a healthy gut microbiome, as compared with being delivered by cesarean section. Consider the evidence, a 2018 paper published in The Lancet, notes that risks of C-section include altered immune development, an increased likelihood of allergy and asthma and reduced intestinal gut microbiome diversity in children.
But while there's much support for vaginal birth, when safe, there's some dispute about the extent to which natural birth may help with gut health and protect against disease over the long term. "In particular, epidemiological studies have linked cesarean delivery with increased rates of asthma, allergies, autoimmune disorders, and obesity," a 2018 research review published in Frontiers in Medicine notes. But it suggests that other factors, ranging from the reason the C-section was performed to whether or not a baby is breastfed to maternal age, drive changes in the infant's microbiome.
Critics of the hygiene hypothesis say the idea, or at the very least, the way it's labeled is overly simplistic. Certainly, we want to encourage things like cleaning up after handling raw chicken and being careful about germs when family members have the flu or other viruses. As such, some researchers have advocated for a rebranding, as noted in an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, including advocating for "targeted hygiene" instead.
Welcome Those Microbes
You don’t have to live or work on a farm to boost the diversity of your microbiome. Experts suggests these strategies:
Get a tally of your microbiome.
Reduce your use of chlorine-based cleaners.
Skip the antibacterial soaps.
Start a garden.
Consider getting a pet.
Have closer interactions with people.
Get a tally of your microbiome. A small percentage of microbes – such as Clostridium difficile, a bacteria that can cause severe diarrhea in people on antibiotics – can be harmful if your microbiome is not diverse enough. You won't know how diverse yours is unless you participate in a clinical study testing your colonic flora, the collection of microorganisms inside the digestive tract, Carpenter says. However, you can sign up with the American Gut Project, run by researchers at UC San Diego, to send in a stool sample for an analysis to identify the various microbes found in your sample. "They can give you an idea of the type of microbes in your intestines, which will give you an idea of the diversity," Krishnan says. In addition, participants can also send in skin swabs to the American Gut Project to learn about the microbes that are living there as well.
There are simple ways to boost your microbe diversity, Krishnan says. "Almost everywhere we go in the environment, from parks to woods to rivers, we come into contact with microbes." They can enter our respiratory system, our digestive system or just hang on our skin.
Reduce your use of chlorine-based cleaners. Such products can help sterilize surfaces, but living in a sterilized environment can be bad for your microbiome. “You actually want to build a healthy microbial environment in your house,” Krishnan says. “You don’t want to live in a sterilized house.”
Skip the antibacterial soaps. Unless you're in a hospital and need to avoid infection, skip the antibacterial soap, which kills all microbes indiscriminately, bad and good ones, Carpenter advises. Regular cleaners and soaps, citrus-based cleaning products and mixtures of lemon juice and water are typically fine alternatives, the microbiologist says, because they'll protect you from infection but won't kill the microbes on your hands.
Start a garden. This is a great way to get your hands in the dirt, and encourage kids to do the same. As a bonus, planting veggies can help you diversify what's on your plate and eat fresh whole foods, which can also prove a boon to gut health.
Consider getting a pet. Having a pet allergy can make close contact with four-legged friends dicey. But there's research to suggest that early exposure to pets – or livestock for that matter – can reduce kids' risk of developing asthma. At the very least, you could let your kids play with a (trusted) neighbor of family member's pet.
Have closer interactions with people. “We don’t hug and kiss as much as we should,” Krishnan says. “We need closer interactions with other humans, because that exchange of microbes is important for your immune system.”
Such interactions can expose you to a greater variety of microbes, boosting the diversity of your microbiome – and potentially keeping you healthier.
The U.S. News Health team delivers accurate information about health, nutrition and fitness, as well as in-depth medical condition guides. All of our stories rely on multiple, independent sources and experts in the field, such as medical doctors and licensed nutritionists. To learn more about how we keep our content accurate and trustworthy, read our editorial guidelines.
Christopher Carpenter, MD
Kiran Krishnan, PhD
Holistic Wellness With Judy – "Think Less, Feel More”
When we begin to listen with our hearts rather than our heads, our whole world changes and becomes softer.
Most of us were born and raised in cultures that value the head over the heart and, as a result, we place our own hearts below our heads in a sort of inner hierarchy of which we may not be conscious. What this means is that we tend to listen and respond from the neck up, often leaving the rest of our bodies with little or no say in most matters. This is a physical habit, which sometimes feels as ingrained as the way we breathe or walk. However, with effort and awareness, we can shift the energy into our hearts, listening and responding from this much deeper, more resonant place.
The brain has a masterful way of imposing structure and order on the world, creating divisions and categories, devising plans and strategies. In many ways, we have our brains to thank for our survival on this planet. However, as is so clear at this time, we also need the wisdom of our hearts if we wish to continue surviving in a viable way. When we listen from our heart, the logical grid of the brain tends to soften and melt, which enables us to perceive the interconnectedness beneath the divisions and categories we use to organize the world. We begin to understand that just as the heart underlies the brain, this interconnectedness underlies everything. Many agree that this is the most important work we can do at this time in history.
For a simple start, try sitting with a friend and asking them to tell you about their life at this moment. For 10 minutes or more, try to listen without responding verbally, offering suggestions, or brainstorming solutions. Instead, breathe into your heart and your belly, listening and feeling instead of thinking. When you do this, you may find that it's much more difficult to offer advice and much easier to identify with the feelings your friend is sharing. You may also find that your friend opens up more, goes deeper, and feels they have really been heard. If you also feel great warmth and compassion, almost as if you are seeing your friend for the first time, then you will know that you have begun to tap the power of listening with your heart.
3 HOMEMADE REMEDIES EVERYONE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT
By Nick Polizzi
#1 SAGE TINCTURE FOR SORE THROATS
We’ve all been there. The sickness starts as a scratchy feeling in your throat and develops into a cough… then into a fever… and then you’re down for the count.
This sage tincture will nip that first symptom in the bud while offering other wholesome benefits.
Sage is well-known as an antioxidant-rich seasoning — it’s piney and savoury flavour make it a common culinary addition to soups and sauces. Because of its popularity in cooking, people often overlook sage as a form of medicine… but the truth is that sage is probably your most potent throat healing remedy!
This antibacterial and anti-inflammatory herb is a natural painkiller that soothes both congestion and “runny” symptoms like post-nasal drainage when sprayed at the back of the throat.
Here’s how you can make your own sage tincture at home:
1 small glass jar
Sage (dried or fresh)
90-proof alcohol (usually vodka, rum or brandy)
Pack the jar with sage
Fill the jar with the alcohol all the way to the top
Seal with an air-tight lid
Place in a cool dark place for at least a month
Shake every other day
After a month, strain and pour liquid into a spray bottle
Use the tincture as needed for sore throats and congestion.
#2 PICKLED GARLIC
Garlic is another healing food that typically falls below the medicinal radar. But did you know that garlic can significantly reduce your risk of getting sick and cut your recovery time in half if you do?
Garlic is so powerfully antiviral and antibacterial that even the aroma of cooking garlic filling a house can purify bacteria in the air.
One of my favourite ways to get my daily dose is with pickled garlic. It’s such a simple and delicious way to support your immune system – all you have to do is pop one clove in your mouth daily.
Here’s the recipe we make at home — instead of buying it at the store.
1 pint jar
Apple cider vinegar
5 to 6 bulbs of garlic, broken into cloves and peeled
1 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)
1 tsp dill (optional)
One heat-proof sealable glass jar
In the 1-pint jar, place the garlic cloves (and other ingredients if you chose to use them). Leave an inch of space on the top.
Pour the apple cider vinegar over the garlic until the cloves are covered.
Fasten the lid and leave the jar in a dark place at room temperature for 2 weeks.
After 2 weeks, transfer to your refrigerator or a cool cellar.
Try to wait 2 to 3 weeks before eating.
This recipe is easy enough that you can keep pickled garlic on hand all season long. And as an added bonus, the pickling helps to feed your healthy gut bacteria!
#3 ALOE VERA PLANT
This last remedy comes from a plant so powerful, you don’t even need a recipe for it. Just put in the minimal effort needed to grow one in your home (really, it’s one of the easiest plants to keep around)!
Aloe vera, AKA the “wonder plant,” is a hardy plant known for its outstanding health benefits for a wide range of ailments. Its long, thick leaves are filled with a gel that is packed with vitamins, minerals and healing enzymes, which make aloe vera gel one of the best topical remedies the earth has to offer.
Loaded with fatty acids that help with pain relief, the gelatinous leaves are commonly used to soothe burns, heal wounds and repair skin. Just cut off a leaf as close to the stem as possible, trim away the green skin and you’re left with a translucent gel that you can rub anywhere that is hurting.
Aloe vera is also healing when ingested! Juice from the leaves is very refreshing and supports your digestive system by regulating the number of bacteria in your gut flora and soothing inflamed gastrointestinal tissue.
*Make sure to do your homework before ingesting this potent plant. Some parts near the rind — particularly the yellow juice called “aloe latex” — are so powerful they should not be taken in high doses.
This no-fuss superplant should be in every home. All aloe needs to thrive is sunshine, consistent temperatures and water every 3 months — that’s it!
These 3 all-natural home medicines are easy and fun to prepare. Please do yourself a favour as the seasons are changing and have them all on hand.
Founder, The Sacred Science
Holistic Wellness With Judy – “Changing Others”
If your tendency is to try and change other people, take some time to explore why you feel the need to do so.
Our perception of humanity as a whole is, to a large extent, dualistic. We paint people with a broad brush–some are like us, sharing our opinions and our attitudes, while others are different. Our commitment to values we have chosen to embrace is often so strong that we are easily convinced that our way is the right way. We may find ourselves frustrated by those who view the world from an alternate vantage point and make use of unusual strategies when coping with life's challenges. However ardently we believe that these people would be happier and more satisfied following our lead, we should resist the temptation to try to change them. Every human being has been blessed with a unique nature that cannot be altered by outside forces. We are who we are at any one point in our lives for a reason, and no one person can say for certain what another should be like.
The reasons we try to change one another are numerous. Since we have learned over time to flourish in the richness of lives we have built, we may come to believe that we are qualified to speak on behalf of the greater source. The sum total of our knowledge will never compare to what we do not know, and our understanding of others' lives will forever be limited. The potential we see in the people who are a part of our lives will never be precisely the same as our own, so we do these individuals a disservice when we make assumptions about their intentions, preferences and goals. Our power lies in our ability to accept others for all their quirks and differences and to let go of the need to control every element of our existence. We can love people for who they are, embracing their uniqueness, or we can love them as human beings from afar.
Your ability to influence people may grow more sophisticated because others sense that you respect their right to be themselves, but you will likely spend more time gazing inward, into the one person you can change: yourself.
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