Are We Too Clean?


Is our obsession with being clean, shunning dirt, and taking antibiotics every time our nose gets runny or we feel under the weather actually hurting us? Are we overdoing it with the anti-bacterial soap and the pill popping? Some expects in the field of medicine certainly think so.

I saw an article in The Economist not too long ago on the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and its recent meeting, which discussed the hygiene hypothesis. The hygiene hypothesis tries to explain why some illnesses, such as asthma, eczema, and type-1 diabetes, have become more common in first world countries while, due to improvements in hygiene, many diseases have become much more rare.

My childhood was filled with endless days spent outside playing sports, walking through the creeks behind my house, helping my parents in the garden, and sampling the local honeysuckle bushes. My immune system was exposed to all sorts of bacteria and, as a result, had a lot of practice learning what bacteria was good and what was bad. Life was much different back then than it is now. Our obsession with unnatural cleanliness has only grown with time and neighborhood safety is much more on the front of parents’ minds (are kids even allowed to walk a mile to school anymore like I did?).

As discussed in the article, asthma is caused by an immune response resulting in chronic inflammation of the airways. Studies have shown that farm-raised children are less prone to it than city-raised ones, that children born by Caesarean section are more likely to develop it than children born naturally (children born vaginally get their first dose of bacteria as they pass through the birth canal), and that children treated more often with antibiotics are also more prone.

Why is this? Well it all comes down to the gut. A study in Canada found that infants deficient in four types of bacteria were 20 times more likely to manifest the predictive indicators of asthma. This same study was repeated in Ecuador where it was also found that gut bacteria in infants can predict susceptibility to asthma, though the particular bugs in this study were completely different than the ones from the Canada study.

Scientists are working on the why and the where we go from here, but I thought these findings were fascinating. Since being diagnosed with a gut imbalance myself, I have read a lot on gut health and learned that pretty much everything we eat and expose ourselves to on a daily basis impacts our microbiome. This includes what you eat, the quality of the food you eat, the lotions and makeup you put on your face and body, the vitamins, medications, and supplements you take, how much you exercise, and even your stress levels.

I took medication to treat acne for at least a solid 10 years of my life, which almost certainly contributed to the gut dysbiosis I am working hard to resolve today. While antibiotics kill bad bacteria, they also kill good ones that help our body to function optimally. I’m also a C-section baby, so possibly was more prone to gut imbalances from the beginning.

Regardless of your background and your current state of health, here are a few tips I have learned that are crucial to maintaining a healthy microbiome:

  1. Eat Real Food – A diet filled with processed food and artificial sugars will feed bad bacteria and yeasts, causing them to grow and multiply. Over time this leads to a less diverse microbiome. It has been found that microbiomes are less diverse in obese people.
  2. Eat Organic – Especially produce, meat, and dairy, if at all possible in your budget. Round-up, a common pesticide sprayed by farmers on crops, contains a herbicide called glyphosate, which is antimicrobial. It disrupts the normal gut flora and reduces the number of good bacteria when you eat foods that contain it. If you eat meat and dairy from animals treated with antibiotics, you absorb those antibiotics too.
  3. Avoid Hand Sanitizers – They have been linked to environmental allergies and atopic diseases (asthma, food allergies, atopic dermatitis).
  4. Use Antibiotics Only When Needed – A round of antibiotics can decimate your gut flora, including both the bad and good bacteria. Antibiotics also do not treat viral infections. If your doctor prescribes an antibiotic make sure you understand exactly why.
  5. Get Outside – Play in the garden, go puddle jumping, hike your favorite trail, play fetch at the dog park, or lay in the grass and read a book. Nature is filled with good microbes and your immune system may need a little bit of practice. What better way to celebrate Spring?

Oh, and Happy Earth Day folks.


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