Wait, what? Well whose is it, then? According to Dr. Joseph Mercola, who runs the world’s most-visited alternative-medicine website, it’s from the 100 or so trillion worms, bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other microbes that call the human body home.
Now Mercola seems like a bit of a self-promoter and something of a quack, and I don’t know exactly how he comes up with this particularly exact number. But point is, there are whole ecosystems living in and on our bodies, and most of them, most of the time, are not only beneficial but absolutely essential to us. They are our partners, our protectors, our friends. And we’re killing them.
It all starts, as it should, in the birth canal. When you squeeze through it, you’re coated with beneficial microbes from your mother that help you cope with the harsh new world outside. The steep rise in elective Caesarian sections, however, means that many babies aren’t receiving this gift from mom, and whole generations are missing out on this first dose of natural immunization.
Our next immunological boost also comes from mom in the form of breast milk. The benefits of this magic elixir are well-known, so I won’t bother going into them here, but a good portion of them come from gut bacteria that in the short term protect against infection by harmful bacteria, and in the long term strengthen the immune system and reduce the occurrence of chronic health problems like food allergies and asthma.
And then it begins. “Yuck, don’t play in the dirt.” “Don’t pick your nose.” “Don’t touch that snail, it’s dirty.” We whip out anti-bacterial wipes and scour our children’s hands with them. We have only the best intentions – safeguarding our children from illness. Trouble is, it’s backfiring.
A huge and growing body of evidence tells us that when children aren’t exposed to the complex cocktail of germs all around us they are more susceptible to illness and disease. Scientific studies into the subject, “along with epidemiological observations, seem to explain why immune system disorders like multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, and allergies have risen significantly in the United States and other developed countries,” writes Jane Brody in the New York Times.
Jeff Leach, founder of The Human Food Project, says that the “hygiene hypothesis,” first developed in the 1980s and now supported by innumerable studies, “holds that when exposure to parasites, bacteria, and viruses is limited early in life, children face a greater chance of having…autoimmune diseases during adulthood. In fact, kids with older siblings, who grew up on a farm, or who attended day care early in life seem to show lower rates of allergies.” In other words, when you obsessively “protect” your children from the germs that you think may harm them, you’re actually setting them up for more illness later on.
So you have an only child, you live in Brooklyn, and your kids are now too old to attend day care. What do you do?
Step one – Eliminate anti-bacterial soaps and wipes as fervently as you once wished to banish germs from your child’s body. Between 2000 and 2006, over 1500 anti-bacterial products were introduced in the US, and since then the onslaught has stepped up so considerably that it’s often difficult to find soaps that don’t contain antibacterial agents.
Although the chemical triclosan, found in over 75% of anti-bacterial products, has been in use for over 40 years and is found in everything from soaps to toothpaste to toys, it has never been fully tested by the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration). Triclosan is known to promote the growth of resistant bacteria, including E. coli, and was called in a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science “a priority pollutant of growing concern to human and environmental health.” In 2005 the American Medical Association (AMA) took an official stance against adding triclosan and other antimicrobials to consumer products. In 2010, 37 Kaiser Permanente hospitals removed products containing triclosan, and Johnson and Johnson has pledged to remove the chemical from all its products by 2015. The FDA plans to rule on the use of triclosan later this year. Almost a half-century too late.
Step 2 – Get your kids outside, and let them get dirty. “Children should be allowed to go barefoot in the dirt, play in the dirt, and not have to wash their hands when they come in to eat,” says Dr. Joel V. Weinstock, the director of gastroenterology and hepatology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. Well, I’m going to have my kids wash their hands before they eat, but good old-fashioned soap and water are just fine.
I’ve written before about the many benefits of getting the kids out into natural spaces. Well here’s another one: Exposure to ‘dirt’ – in its many forms – far from harming them, helps to build their immune system, and makes them far healthier throughout their lives. And if they want to eat the stuff, or lick their dirty fingers or suck their filthy thumbs, then more power to them. Literally.
Here are some sites with good information on the topic, and great ideas for activities to get your kids dirty.
- Simple Mom
- National Wildlife Federation
- CBS News
- Keeper of the Home
- Field Notes from Fatherhood and here
- Sharon Lovejoy