I have, on many occasions, written about the importance of good hygiene and sanitation on the chances of a family or survival group succeeding, even when everything else fails. That’s all well and good, but what can be done before a disaster to impart a resistance to infection in the next generation?
In modern times we have, as a matter of “good parenting”, made every effort to keep our children with their noses wiped and their hands clean. Indeed, these are the basics of respiratory hygiene to prevent things like colds and flus. However, are our kids too clean? In our never-ending battle to keep them shiny and bright, have we, instead, made them more prone to the very microbes from which we want to protect then?
Many scientists and physicians think so. In 1989, researcher Dr. David Strachan suggested the hypothesis that the failure of children to be exposed to infectious bugs and parasites may be responsible for the epidemic of allergies and allergic conditions like asthma. This was called the “Hygiene Hypothesis” and the lack of exposure to microbes was, later, more broadly applied to other diseases ranging from hay fever to diabetes to multiple sclerosis.
The theory is based on the thought that avoidance of common germs suppresses the development of a normal immune system. In addition to microbe-avoiding practices like staying inside and not getting dirty, just the fact that modern families are smaller than those 100 years ago results in less passing-around of common infections. This, in turn, leads to the failure to develop immunity against them or the
tolerance that would prevent allergic reactions.
Later studies suggest that some of the skin, gut, and respiratory germs we try so hard to avoid are actually “old friends” that have been with us since ancient times, and lack of exposure to them doesn’t allow our immune systems to develop nor function appropriately. Researchers like Dr. Graham Rook compared the immature immune system to a computer; it has many programs, but needs “data” in the form of diverse germ exposures to allow the “program” to identify those that are harmful. The fetus receives some of this data even as it passes through the vaginal canal during birth.
When most of us lived on farms or in less-than-pristine cities, we were exposed to plenty of germs from a young age due to time spent outside with animals or with lots of other people. Now, unless they’re playing Pokemon Go, the majority of kids aren’t motivated to go outside or, certainly, get dirty. In the final analysis, never getting dirty as a child may be hazardous to your future health.
Having said all this, most parents will have trouble throwing their kids in the nearest pig sty or making mud pies with Rover’s, um, poo. There are still disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and parasites out there that you’d like to avoid. Is there a middle ground?
Here are some things you might consider:
Avoid antibiotics: The medical profession may have been remiss in over-prescribing antibiotics, but there are antibiotics in food as well. Indeed, 70-80% of antibiotics are given to livestock, not to treat infection, but to make they grow faster and get them to market sooner. Stick with antibiotic-free eggs, milk, and meats.
Avoid anti-bacterial soaps: Triclosan, the active antibiotic ingredient in many brands, has recently been banned by the FDA due to the risk of antibiotic resistance and the lack of evidence of any medical benefit. Use regular soap and water for washing.
Tailor Handwashing Strategies to the Situation: If you’re in a city where open sewers run through the streets and people are tossing buckets of excrement out the window, have your kids wash their hands conscientiously. In clean environments where there isn’t a raging epidemic, however, don’t freak out over dirty hands.
Don’t Bathe Every Day: Not only should your kids be exposed to dirt to develop their immune system, but bathing too often might do more harm than good. Daily showers removes protective skin oils and causes drying and irritation. You’re also washing away the good bacteria that lives on your skin.
Get Your Kid a Pet: Not every kid has the good fortune of living on a farm, but they’ll benefit from a furry pet. Dogs seem to give more resistance to colds and allergic skin conditions like eczema than cats, but early cat exposure might give more protection against asthma. Why not have both?
Be Sensible About Animal Droppings: Yes, I know that you can’t avoid trace amounts of animal excrement in your kids’ environment, but don’t let them play in the cat litter and you should remove pet and wild animal excrement from play areas.
Get your kids outside when they’re young: In these days where we have legitimate concerns about children’s safety, you might be reluctant to let your kids go outside by themselves. Here’s an idea: Go out with them, to parks, wilderness areas, and other places where both adults and kids can reap real benefits.
The more you encourage outdoor activities early, the more they become part of the next generation’s culture; let the kids get a little dirty, and you might give them a healthier future.
Joe Alton, MD
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