By Mary Ruebush PhD, Experience Life
Hand sanitizer dispensers are everywhere these days — in schools, gyms, and offices of all kinds. Most parents feel compelled to carry a bottle of the stuff on their person or risk appearing irresponsible. Antibacterial substances are added to children’s toys and adult workout clothes. Yet, from my point of view as an immunologist and microbiologist, this growing fear of microorganisms is unnecessary and alarming. In fact, my research has led me to believe that what we need today isn’t less dirt — it’s more.
Because of some common misunderstandings about how illness works, we’ve begun to mistake any and all microbes for public enemy No. 1. But if bacteria itself were the problem, we’d all be long gone by now.
The healthy human body harbors some 90 trillion microbes, outnumbering cells by about 10 to one. The majority of these organisms are beneficial; they compete with harmful microbes for space, aid in the function of the digestive system, and even produce factors to clot blood after an injury. Their presence keeps the immune system tuned and strong (a process I will explain later). Our societal obsession with destroying them is counterproductive to our well-being.
Problems with the war on bacteria were first identified in the 1980s by medical professionals who noticed a surge in the number of children diagnosed with asthma and food allergies. They hypothesized that the modern obsession with cleanliness, along with an increasing tendency to stay indoors in germ- and parasite-free environments, was leading to weaker immune systems and an increase in autoimmune disorders.
The formal name for this line of thinking is “the hygiene hypothesis.” I’ve spent 30 years teaching students about its scientific underpinnings, and demonstrating how reasonable exposure to dirt and germs is the shortest route to immune strength for just about everyone, but especially children.
The immune system is like an athlete: To become strong and adept, it needs training and practice. Hyper-sanitized environments deny it that opportunity and keep it sedentary and out of shape.
The best way to protect our health is to stabilize its foundations. And building a robust immune system is a whole lot easier than trying to kill every last germ. Here’s what you need to know to keep the right germs on your side, and to stop worrying about the dirt that won’t hurt you.