If you’re a germaphobe, constantly use antibacterial soaps & cleaners, or overuse antibiotics when you are “sick”, LISTEN UP: GERMS ARE GOOD, PEOPLE!! After spending the good part of the last five or so years traveling to many less clean countries and contracting all sorts of sicknesses from strep throat to bronchitis to awful drop-dead-stomach ailments… and then doing a ton of research of my own, I’ve come to the conclusion: WE ARE WAYYYYY TOO CLEAN IN AMERICA! And because of our avoidance of everyday “normal” bacteria that our bodies need to fight off naturally, we are cultivating weaker immune systems that are, in turn, much more vulnerable to repeated sicknesses and allergies.
I know what you’re thinking: “But BreAnn, there are crazy respiratory diseases killing children in the U.S. and Ebola is starting to become a real threat in our country!” And I get that. Keeping things clean is smart, but going crazy using antibacterial soaps and cleaners, buying kids’ antibacterial toys and other products, and overusing antibiotic medications is actually killing off the microbes that can help strengthen our immune systems.
Overall, when it comes to germs, most people have it backward: With relatively few exceptions, germs are good for us and good for our kids. Our bodies are FULL of bacteria, inside and out, and having this bacteria actually helps our immune systems become stronger and more likely to fight off any “bad bacteria” when it enters our bodies.
A growing amount of research suggests that when exposure to bacteria, parasites, and viruses is limited early in life, children face a greater chance of having allergies, asthma, and other autoimmune diseases during adulthood. In fact, kids who grew up on a farm or who attended day care early in life seem to show lower rates of allergies. Just as a child’s brain needs stimulation and interaction to develop normally, the young immune system is strengthened by exposure to everyday germs so that it can learn, adapt, and regulate itself.
Why have I never thought about this in the last ten years of my adult life?? In the past, I used to use my elbows to open doors and push elevator buttons; If I dropped any food on the kitchen counter or floor, I wouldn’t dream of putting it into my mouth; and I followed the American trends of using hand sanitizers daily, replacing all hand soaps with antibacterial soaps, and spraying all my countertops with bleach cleaners or antibacterial cleaners. But what I failed to realize is that NORMAL cleaners and soaps DO kill harmful bacteria and do the job JUST FINE. However, the antibacterial soaps and cleaners go one step further and create an unnatural, sterile environment that—in the long run—is really not helping us out. The only places you’ll find that are THAT clean and sterile are hospitals… and they are THAT clean for obvious reasons.
I never really thought about any of this until I began to travel more extensively and was baffled by just how often—and horribly—I got sick from EVERYTHING!
- In 2006 I traveled for six weeks around Europe and spent the majority of the time fighting off bronchitis and an itchy rash. The bronchitis was vicious, lasting about 3 weeks long!
- When I lived in San Sebastian, Spain in 2008, I contracted bronchitis, strep throat, and two rounds of THE WORST STOMACH SICKNESS I’ve ever faced in my life in a span of only seven months!
- During the 5 or so years after college, I would get some kind of cold or sickness at least once every other month… either lung or sinus related. And more recently, I seem to be developing some allergies or sinus problems from living in the city.
During our round-the-world trip, I got a few sinus infections in China, and we were both stomach-sick for the majority of the six weeks in China and three weeks we spent in Vietnam… but I have to say: I got sick a LOT less than James, and I think that’s because of my previous travel sicknesses… I must have built up a lot more immunities after battling all of those nasty sicknesses in the past!
The strange thing about all this is: I DON’T think my family was a bunch of germaphobes, and from what I remember we were normal kids who played outside and hung around the neck of our dog who would repeatedly lick our faces with his bacterial-coated tongue. Maybe my mother could give me more insight on if we were “normal” or “super clean” or “crazy clean freaks” because I guess I don’t really know… but from what I remember we were pretty normal. Then again, “normal” in the U.S. is insanely CLEAN compared to most other countries in the world. And TOO CLEAN in my opinion.
Anyway, so after returning to the U.S. after our round-the-world trip and then reading up on a TON of research, I tossed out ALL of my antibacterial soaps and cleaners and have adopted a new strategy: Try to turn a blind eye to touching door knobs, dropping food on counters and floors, and JUST GO WITH IT. I’m embracing everyday bacteria with open arms and try not to let it get into my head (which is NOT easy to do when people tell you about all the nasty germs and illnesses floating around out there). Of course, I’m not going “crazy”, touching the bottom of my dirt-covered shoe and then mashing my finger in my eye or anything, but you get the point.
But I have to say that I DO now pick up mostly any bit of food I’ve dropped on the floor at home (if it’s something dry) and happily pop it into my mouth with the thought, “This will make me stronger!!” Haha… ridiculous image, I know.
And—KNOCK ON WOOD—James and I have not really been sick at all in the past year or so! I will occasionally start to feel a few small symptoms of something coming on now and then… but maybe one or two days go by and it’s gone and I’m back to normal.
Being born in America puts you at a higher risk for allergies?
Here’s another strange phenomenon I learned about while traveling through China: Being born in the U.S. puts kids at higher risk for allergies! Huh?? Well, it started while we were waiting for a bus in Beijing and struck up a conversation with an American girl who said she was allergic to probably like 10 different things… peanuts, chicken (huh??), milk, gluten, and more… she had a little piece of paper with all of these things listed, along with a translation to Chinese so she could try to avoid these foods that make her sick. Well—*chuckle*—if any of you have been to China before, this is a pretty humorous scenario. For the most part, most Chinese people don’t have allergies and they definitely don’t understand ANYTHING about a restricted diet, nor are they very accommodating to these restrictions. Half the time you have NO clue what the HECK they are putting in the food you eat anyway, or even what type of meat you are eating for that matter (James and I constantly referred to it as “mystery meat”), and any time you ask them to NOT put something in your food, they still say, “Just a little?”
Anyway, upon reading up on this topic, I read that scientists found that children born outside of the U.S. were less likely to develop asthma or allergies compared with those born in the U.S.: 20% of foreign-born kids developed allergic diseases compared with 34% of the American-born children. The prevalence of asthma was even lower, with those born outside of the country 47% less likely to develop the condition than those born in the U.S.
So you are wondering: What does birthplace have to do with how the immune-system functions? Again, it goes back to what I was talking about above: simply put: WE ARE TOO CLEAN! And… it has to do with the “Hygiene Hypothesis.”
The Hygiene Hypothesis
Put in a more technical term, the most likely explanation for increased sicknesses and allergies in America could involve a term know as the “hygiene hypothesis,” which suggests that our improved sanitation methods and efforts to keep germs at bay may deprive young, still-developing immune systems from being trained to recognize and react appropriately to the right types of irritants.
“The hygiene hypothesis suggests that early-life exposures to infection or an unclean environment may protect against allergies. Children born and raised outside the U.S. likely have more and/or different infectious exposures than those born in the U.S.,” says study author Dr. Jonathan Silverberg of St. Luke’s–Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City.
So… now this all makes a LOT more sense as to why it seemed no matter where I traveled to in the past I ALWAYS got sick! And it also makes me pleased that after going through all these sicknesses in the past 10 or so years, my body and immune system is SO much stronger because of it! And… James too….
Actually, an outbreak of the flu recently took down eight people in James’ office and he laughed at them and said, “Not me! My immune system is like a Roman Gladiator after our trip… would you like me to lick the door handle to your office??”
Yea… germs are now our friends!
What do you think about this all? Did you grow up in an extremely “sterile” environment as a kid and are now paying for it? What about your own kids?—I obviously don’t have kids yet, so I’m curious to know about those of you who have kids and what you personally think about germs and sicknesses and what I wrote above. Please share below in the comments section!
BONUS: Here’s a video of James discussing the top of surgical masks that many people wear in Japan to avoid the spread of germs from the common cold! TOO STERILE!??