Are we too clean?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

May 2012

"A little dirt never hurt anybody." You probably heard that when you were a kid and it's a good bet that it was your dad, not your mom, who said it. Back when we could pick an apple from a neighbor's tree without worrying about pesticide residue we didn't bother to wash it and would just eat around the occasional worm. Mom would rinse spinach leaves over and over but a few gritty grains would always get by. And no, that dirt never hurt us.

We're super-clean now. Our bodies and everything that we put into or on them has been scrubbed to death. But maybe we overdid it. The vast majority of germs in our environment are not harmful and many are helpful. "Good" bacteria on our skin do battle with bad ones. As disgusting it may seem, about two pounds of our intestinal contents consist of bacteria that we acquire at birth and that boost our immune system, manufacture vitamins and lower cholesterol. From our nasal cavities to our nether regions, good bacteria actually protect us from disease.

Do you remember Pigpen, the Charles M. Schulz Peanuts character? He may have wandered through the comic strip surrounded by flies and dirt but his overall health was probably better than Lucy's. According to the hygiene hypothesis, early-life exposure to germs stimulates the immune system. It might explain why during some polio epidemics children from poor families were less likely to become ill than those in affluent areas. The former were exposed to fairly benign sewage-borne viruses and developed antibodies that later protected them from the polio virus.

They didn't have a sewage system back in the Stone Age. Humans lived in small bands, seldom more than 40 or 50 individuals and they had plenty of space in which to wander and deposit bodily wastes. Their food supply inevitably became contaminated with bacteria but these were the same beneficial germs that modern sanitation prevents us from acquiring.

If certain cells of our immune system are not stimulated by bacteria and even parasitic worms, they allow the development of other immune cells that lead to conditions such as eczema and asthma. By eliminating beneficial germs and worms through modern plumbing, cleaning and antibiotic treatment, we are interfering with the finely tuned balance of nature that has evolved over thousands of generations. And it's too late to go back.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.