We might be too good at being clean

Just curious, how do you feel about this next statement? Letting a little more dirt into your life may improve your health.

Maybe your reaction is disbelief. “Everyone knows that germs cause disease and we should try to stay away from them.”

And you're right. Some bacteria and viruses do cause disease, which is why it's important to practice basic hygiene. But avoiding germs altogether isn't the answer.

As we learn more about the human body, we're learning that we're supposed to be around germs - at least sometimes. Humans have evolved to co-exist with - to need - a variety of helpful bacteria. They live on the skin, in the gut, and in the vaginal tract.

But for the last few decades, we've been living in more and more sanitized environments. This is great in some settings, like hospitals and doctor's offices. But we’ve taken sanitizing our bodies, our living spaces and work spaces almost to the extreme. Turns out that this type of hygiene is not so great for everyday life. While antibacterial soap and sanitizing wipes may seem like a good way to keep clean and tidy, we're learning that extreme aversion to germs may be hurting us. And letting a little dirt back in might help.

Maybe the idea of letting the dirt in triggers fear or concern: “If I don’t sanitize my hands and living area I’ll definitely get sick.”

The hygiene hypothesis helps us understand why this isn't true. It proposes that reduced exposure to microbiota (germs) as children may lead to increased rates of asthma and autoimmune disease.[1],[2] And, it seems to be ringing true. In recent years, antibacterial soap has been outlawed by the FDA in the US due to health concerns.[3] We need those helpful bacteria to stay on our skin to help keep us healthy. And having an ideal makeup of microbes in our digestive tract can have a positive impact on many aspects of health.

Extreme hygiene also contributes to antibiotic resistance. When we are always trying to kill bacteria, they adapt, outsmarting us time and again. And in the event that we really need to kill harmful bacteria, such as in life-threatening infections, we may not have the right tools to do so if many of us have, in effect, trained the bacteria to survive antibacterial techniques through our hyper-sanitized lives.

Perhaps you feel liberated: “Thank goodness, and tell me more! It’s so much work to try to keep the place perfectly clean.”

Indeed, “hygiene” doesn’t need to be synonymous with “sterile.” In fact, if we think about hygiene as a method to reduce risk of disease,[4] we become open to the following as updated hygiene practices:

  • Get outside - get a little sun (for the vitamin D) or supplement with Vitamin D
  • Don’t be afraid of a little good clean dirt - like getting dirty from enjoying natural areas
  • Wash hands with simple (not antibacterial) soap and water
  • Get more of the good bugs! Eat traditional fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, kefir, vinegar, etc.
  • Value sleep - aim for at least 8 hours per night

Some may feel angry to hear a suggestion to be less clean. “My situation is different than most people’s, so blanket statements like this never apply to me.”

This doctor couldn’t agree more! In fact, that’s where natural medicine doctors can help the most--in helping individuals navigate the risks and benefits of various treatments and lifestyle changes. It’s important to figure out what works best for you given your individual needs and concerns. Set up a visit to get a natural medicine doctor on your team.

[1] Jatzlauk G, Bartel S, Heine H, Schloter M, Krauss-Etschmann S. Influences of environmental bacteria and their metabolites on allergies, asthma, and host microbiota. Allergy. 2017;72(12):1859-1867. doi:10.1111/all.13220.

[2] Clark A, Mach N. Role of Vitamin D in the Hygiene Hypothesis: The Interplay between Vitamin D, Vitamin D Receptors, Gut Microbiota, and Immune Response. Front Immunol. 2016;7:627.

[3] F.D.A. Bans Sale of Many Antibacterial Soaps, Saying Risks Outweigh Benefits. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/03/science/fda-bans-sale-of-many-antibacterial-soaps-saying-risks-outweigh-benefits.html. Published January 20, 2018. Accessed May 10, 2018.

[4] Vandegrift R, Bateman AC, Siemens KN, et al. Cleanliness in context: reconciling hygiene with a modern microbial perspective. Microbiome. 2017;5(1). doi:10.1186/s40168-017-0294-2.

Katy Morrison, ND, LAc