Digging Up Dirt

From: scrapetv.com

You know the old saying, “cleanliness is next to godliness“? In this era of super-antibiotics, vaccines, immunotherapy and just about anything else designed to wipe out disease, is it possible to go too far in our quest to stay germ-free?

Surprisingly, evidence suggests that exposure to germs—the what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger theory—can actually strengthen our immune systems. The documentaryBabies” examined the standards of hygiene in other cultures. Infants raised in areas without access to Handiwipes, Clorox or even just clean water seemingly developed less of a propensity to develop allergies, asthma or autoimmune diseases (such as diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease). An article in the Wall Street Journal, “Can Dirt Do a Little Good?” discusses how autoimmune diseases were almost unknown before modern sanitation and antibiotics appeared in grand scale. Some even wonder if heart disease develops in modern society as another by-product of our quest to keep infants in a too-sterile environment.

It seems that exposure to germs, at least at an early age, allows us to build resistance in our immune systems that may last life-long. This “hygiene hypothesis” suggests that early exposure to germs actually kick-starts our immune system to get serious about fighting much more serious organisms, including viral pathogens. These pathogens, if left to run amok, confuse our immune systems into attacking our own tissue. In fairness, not all agree this is the only explanation for increased autoimmune diseases in developed countries.

We push hand-sanitizers as one remedy to stop the spread of disease. Used judiciously, they are beneficial during times of flu epidemics. However, when used indiscriminately, or to excess, they create problems for the environment and for our children. For some people, compulsively wiping down all that we touch also seems to create its own stress. An excessive fear of germs can take the form of an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) necessitating treatment with medications or therapy.

Once again, it seems balance is key. There is nothing wrong with maintaining a tidy house and keeping children away from spoiled garbage, or seeking help if you catch them eating dirt. But when they head out with their pail and shovel to discover treasure in the back yard just remember that digging up a little dirt today may create a healthier tomorrow.

About Steve P. Sanders

A general internist writing and sharing ideas and art.

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