I once spent some time in remote areas of South America. There was no electricity or running water and the sanitation system was a hole in the ground and mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds were feasting on me through my denim jeans. When I asked for a drink of water I was given a cup and told to walk past the animals and dip it in a river that I was too scared to put my toe in let alone drink from. What struck me most were the happy, healthy, naked, mozzie bite-free children running around.
In communities like these, people have adapted to their environments a lot better than we have in the western world. From the moment they are born they are exposed to the multitude of germs that they live with every day. Their immune systems mature very quickly. They have to in order to deal with fighting off serious diseases such as Typhoid, Malaria and a whole range of parasites. There is no sterilising baby’s bottle here, much to my dismay!
What is being too clean?
So the question begs, have we become too clean for our own good? The “Hygiene Hypothesis” is a theory which links decreased exposure to germs and infection in childhood with the increase in asthma, allergies and immune system disorders in developed nations.
Have you noticed that it is usually the kids with older siblings who are healthier and more robust? Studies have shown that kids from larger families, kids who grow up on farms, kids who have lots of pets, or kids who attend large childcare centres in the first six months of life are less likely to develop hay fever, eczema or asthma. How crazy is that?
Their immune systems learn not to overreact to everyday stuff like pollens and dust mites. This is because, like in third world countries, they are exposed from infancy to all the germs that naturally occur in their environment, allowing their immune system to do what it is supposed to do, build up immunity! Heavy use of antibacterial cleaning products, antibiotics in the first year of life and even caesarean sections, (because they are more sterile than vaginal births) have all been associated with higher rates of allergies and asthma.
Especially now, there are so many antibacterial products available our homes are like hospitals. And it’s being marketed like it’s a good thing – ‘Kills 99.9% of bacteria’ or ‘Kills bacteria for up to 8 hours’. This makes us associate bacteria with germs, infection and disease. But the fact is there are 10 times more bacteria in our bodies than cells. Most bacteria are harmless and most of it is actually good for us.
What about antibiotics?
It is now known that overuse of antibiotics leads to superbugs. Many microbiologists believe the same thing will happen with overuse of antibacterials. Overuse of antibacterials kills off the good and weak bacteria leaving the strongest, most resistant bacteria to thrive. Newer antibacterials leave a residue which continues to kill bacteria long after it has been used so the good bacteria can’t re-establish itself.
So what should we be cleaning with?
Good old Bi-carb soda, vinegar and soap and water can clean just about everything without poisoning your kids. If you require a deeper clean, hydrogen peroxide and alcohol are antibacterials but they don’t hang around once you have finished using them therefore the good bacteria can reform.
This doesn’t mean we never have to clean the bathroom again or we can throw away our hoovers. As you’ve heard plenty of times now, be sensible, wash your hands properly with soap and water, keep your house clean but don’t freak out when your toddler eats a handful of dirt or another kid sucks his dummy. And unless you live in a hospital throw out those antibacterials.