Don’t Super-Sanitize Me: Understanding Microbes

Andrea Fabry

Andrea Fabry › Andrea is a former journalist, a radio host, and the mother of nine children. She is ...

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Andrea Fabry wonders if we’ve gone too far in our quest for ultra-cleanliness, without truly understanding the difference between good and bad microbes. Are we setting ourselves up to be even more vulnerable to “allergies, chronic disease, and autoimmune conditions?”

Walk into a grocery store and you’ll see spinach that has been triple washed and foods wrapped tightly in plastic, as well as cleaning products that “kill 99.9% of bacteria.” Before you step into the store you’ll wipe your hands with an antibacterial wipe. In all likelihood this wipe will contain a strong antimicrobial agent such as triclosan, first introduced to America as a pesticide in 1969.

We are indeed the Super-Sanitized Generation.

Our obsession with hygiene is understandable. Bad things happen when people don’t wash their hands or dispose of fecal waste in a responsible manner.

But has the pendulum swung too far? Are all microbes bad? Are we missing some key information that might help us turn the tide on increasing instances of allergies, chronic disease, and autoimmune conditions?

The truth is, our bodies are mostly microbial. Ninety percent, in fact. Microbial cells outnumber human cells by 10 to 1. Our bodies are a combination of fungi, bacteria, viruses, single-celled organisms called archaea, and probably other categories of microbes that will one day be named. Certainly not all of our inhabitants are “good,” but is it possible that even the “bad” microbes help us in ways we don’t yet understand?

Consider a healthy appendix. Once thought to be a meaningless organ, research suggests that it is a storehouse of beneficial bacteria, ready to share its microbial abundance when the body is in need.

Studies now show that babies get the majority of beneficial microbes in the birth canal—a finding with significant implications for children born by Caesarean section.

We now understand that antibiotics kill not only the bad microbes, but many of the beneficial ones as well.

The National Institutes of Health wants to find out more about the role of microbes in human health. In June 2012 it launched the Human Microbiome Project, which will study various microbial communities such as those found in nasal passages, oral cavities, and the gastrointestinal tract.

The Human Food Project, a crowd-funded initiative, is on a similar path, hoping to learn more about the connection between health and microbes.

What can we do in the meantime to arm ourselves microbially? Here are five suggestions for boosting your immune system by bolstering what some scientists call our “forgotten organ.”

Click here to read Andrea’s five suggestions over at Our Health Journey.

This article originally appeared on Our Health Journey. It is partially posted here with permission from the author.

What’s your take on all these super-sanitizing cleaners? Are they for the better or the worse?

Photo Credit: Andrea Fabry