That is the question that has been on my mind for the last couple of weeks. In the past I used to be the one who was super cautious about the dirt, disinfecting everything around me with anti-bacterial wipes, sprays and soaps.
However recently I went to exhibition in London called ‘Dirt’ which is about everything to do with dirt, germs, bacteria, etc. Apart from seeing some pretty disgusting looking close-ups of bacteria crawling under a microscope, I also came across a book called Why dirt is good for you by Mary Ruebush, PhD.
In a nutshell, Ruebush makes some pretty valid points which opened up my eyes to a number of facts. Firstly, that by using disinfectants and anti-bacterial soaps we are actually helping to create more harmful germs around us. This is because most anti-bacterial products kill about 99% of bacteria, however that 1% which survives can multiply and therefore create a new generation of stronger more harmful superbugs. Also, all the anti-bacterials we use also kill our normal flora and normal bacteria that live on our skin, so harmful bacteria can gain a foothold on our bodies instead.
Ruebush gives a fascinating explanation of our highly complicated and efficient immune system, stating that exposure to more germs actually helps us to build up our immunity. Our amazing immune systems remember all the bacteria we ever came into contact with and so the next time it sees them it can get rid of them straight away. Even when children naturally play and put things in their mouth, this help builds their immunity and it doesn’t help them if everything around them is being disinfected with antibacterial agents. Using plain old normal soap and water is the key to good immunity and good health for both adults and children. And if you must disinfect – alcohol is the best. The best protection against illnesses is to get regularly vaccinated, so the body can build its natural defences. Also breast-feeding children helps them build up better immunity, as they get support from the immune levels found in their mother’s milk.
Antibiotics should also be avoided wherever possible as (Ruebush only advocates using them in life-threatening situations) because they have a similar effect, in that they weaken our immune system and can cause bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics in the long term. If we really must take antibiotics we should take them for the entire period and not just stop when we feel better. This is because some bacteria are killed by the antibiotics straight away but some may take longer to die. So if we stop taking the antibiotics too early some of the stronger bacteria might still be alive and therefore the stronger bacteria can multiply, creating a new generation of more resistant bacteria. So next time the same antibiotics might not work for us if we get the same illness again and we might need stronger antibiotics to fight this more resilient bacteria. Furthermore antibiotics do not work against viruses – just bacterial infections, but pharmaceutical companies are far too keen to promote their products to patients and doctors and so antibiotics are sometimes prescribed even for minor ailments that do not need treatment. Even ear infections in children will usually go by themselves, and after 3 days 80 – 90 percent of children fight off their ear infections without any antibiotics. In the USA it was the case that antibiotics were automatically prescribed for ear infections, which in turn created antibiotic resistant bacteria, and this practice is now discouraged.
In fact it is thought that the recent e-coli outbreak has been caused by the casual overuse of antibiotics by doctors, patients and in agriculture.
The stains MRSA and VRSA are organisms that have been killing patients originally in hospitals and now also in some communities. They have developed by mutating and becoming resistant to antibiotics, so currently there is no way of treating them and this is a very scary prospect. (Ruebush).
The evolution of bacteria happens naturally, but we are helping them to become even more resistant whenever we use antibiotics when we don’t have to, and using anti-bacterial agents and chemicals to clean ourselves and our environment.
Historically, good cleanliness led to better health and saved lives. However, although penicillin was a ground-breaking discovery and antibiotics have saved many lives, now we are weakening their effectiveness by over-using them when it is not necessary and one day they might stop working altogether and we’ll could be back where we were before we even discovered them, only with stronger bugs around us. Of course we shouldn’t live in filth, but at the same time we shouldn’t overdo it.
In general it is best to use natural products for us and our household. There are lots of natural cleaning available on the market today, and there is no need for chemicals in the house. After we flush them down the drain or toilet, they seep into the water system and come back to us via the tap.
Buying organic food, including meat also ensures that antibiotics have not been used in treating the produce.
So, from now on I will only be using normal soap and no antibacterial products in the house. Although I do still have some specific hygienic ‘obsessions’ which include not putting bags on chairs, as I put them on the floor at work, flushing the toilet with the toilet seat down (as germs can leap a couple of meters high when the flushing toilet) and definitely no shoes in the house!
Though it is true, as my boyfriend tells me, that I might eventually go mad if I keep obsessing about germs, pointing out quite rightly that I went from being obsessed by disinfecting everything to being absolutely against disinfectants overnight after reading this book. But I can only say that reading this book has opened my eyes to the world of bacteria and dirt, and while I will do my best to avoid them, I will not worry about germs too much now, as I now know they can be even be good for me.
So, I wish you all happy germ fighting (or befriending!) and good luck with all your battles.