Last summer I spent a week in the hospital after developing a severe staph infection on my lower belly. I drove myself to the emergency room one Sunday evening after having reached the conclusion there was something seriously wrong – this wasn’t just a heat rash. The doctor’s reaction on examining me was (“Holey Moley!!”).
Perhaps I have a sensitivity to staph. I’ve had three staph infections in my life (although this was by far the worse), but I don’t have much sensitivity to anything else infectious – or autoimmune either.
I had asthma as child but outgrew it. For about five years I had something cold-like every fall when the weather first turned cold – but that’s been over 20 years ago. I had the flu when I was 18 and a strep throat when I was 26. Aside from these events I don’t catch diseases. Oh, there have been days when I snuffled a bit or had an upset stomach and may have been fighting off an infection, but it was always gone in a day.
I’m not alone. My parents seldom get colds, don’t have allergies, and aside from the inevitable effects of aging are hale and hearty. Same with my siblings. Sure, you can argue good genes, but I’ve long had another theory about this, one I was reminded of by an article published by Jane E. Brody in the New York Times: “Babies Know: A Little Dirt is Good for You.”
My parents grew up in the 20s and 30s before our culture became terrified of germs while my siblings and I grew up on a farm eating food and drinking water that wasn’t perfectly clean. As children we were all exposed to a broad spectrum of bacteria at low levels and our bodies simply developed the ability to kill the unfriendly ones. Our immune systems were regularly exercised and, as a result, became strong and discriminating.
We’ve seen a huge increase in allergies here in the West and there’s evidence this may be a result of immune systems that “panic.” They have not learned to distinguish between organisms and chemicals that threaten the body and those that don’t. Consequently anytime these immune systems see something odd they attack – even if it’s you they’re attacking.
In another couple of examples, some current research points to potential links between celiac disease and lactose intolerance and the lack of microorganisms in the gut that can break down gluten and lactose. A decrease in breast-feeding may well contribute to this. The placenta isn’t a perfect filter, but it’s pretty good. So breast feeding not only passes on the mother’s existing antibodies to her children, but also passes on some useful bacteria. Ultra-sterilized infant formula doesn’t.
We have become a germophobic nation. The supermarket hands out wipes to disinfect buggies, we buy anti-bacterial soap for our kitchens and bathrooms, we expect our doctors to give us antibiotics whenever we get a runny nose or our child has an earache, we shoot our industrially raised cattle and chickens with drugs to prevent illness – not cure it.
This is silly. We live in – and surround – a sea of bacteria. In fact, aside from physically breaking down the food you eat by chewing and the application of some acids and enzymes, you do relatively little to digest your food. Instead a host of microorganisms living in your gut extract and then excrete the nutrients that keep you alive. If your intestine ruptures many of these bacteria can quickly kill you, but in their place they’re not only harmless but positively beneficial.
Besides, anti-bacterial soaps don’t work any better than ordinary soap, but they do enable bacteria to evolve their own immunity to the anti-bacterial agents. Our over-reliance on drugs whenever we don’t feel well combined with the additional drugs we get in every bite of chicken or drink of milk we eat is breeding a new group of super bugs – and making us less able to defend ourselves.
I don’t really advocate eating dirt, although eating a bit is unlikely to kill you. Washing your hands regularly – but not obsessively – is wise. And washing fruits and vegetables is a good idea, but the most effective way is to disinfect them is by briefly soaking in a vinegar solution. And the next time you feel bad, instead of going to the doctor, just take the day off and relax. Give your immune system a chance to do it’s job – and get a little exercise.