Parents have made an enemy of bacteria for years. They’ve sanitized tabletops, disinfected playthings and wiped down grocery store carts to keep their children safe from unseen germs.
That instinct is a natural one, experts say, but emerging research about the body’s bacteria, fungi and other cells that cover our skin, gastrointestinal tract and other areas suggests that we may be taking hygiene vigilance a little too far.
That, in the long run, weakens our immune systems.
Scientists are only beginning to understand the millions of microbes that make up the human microbiome, said UC Davis microbiologist Jonathan Eisen, but researchers are finding that antibiotics.
Household disinfectants and other sanitizing products are also killing the “good bacteria” that help our bodies fend off disease.
Many believe that the shortage of certain microbes explains recent spikes in childhood allergies and asthma.
People in developing countries, who grow up in less sterile environments, eat mostly non-processed foods and spend more time around people and animals, have more varieties of microbes in their gastrointestinal tracts than people in the United States, recent studies show.
At the same time, food allergy rates are lower in Africa and South America than in North America, Western Europe and Australia, according to the World Allergy Organization.
The findings play into the “hygiene hypothesis,” or the idea that childhood infections acquired through unhygienic contact bolster the immune system against disease later in life.
Of course, too many germs can also carry risks for children, said Dr. Ralph Morris, a Minnesota physician.
So what is the microbiome anyway?
The microbiome is made up of trillions of bacterial cells that we pick up from the world. They’re mostly concentrated in the gastrointestinal tract, but they also live in the lungs, mouth and other parts of the body.
Microbes assist in food digestion and trigger the immune system to fight illness. Some microbes appear to contribute to weight gain and others cause inflammation.
A difference in microbial makeup can predispose people to certain diseases or change the way they react to drug therapies.
How is it formed?
Germ exposure starts in utero and keeps forming through adulthood, making the first few months and years of a child’s life a crucial time for building a healthy microbiome.
Many experts, including Roseville allergist and immunologist Dr. Travis Miller, believe the ways babies are delivered help determine their future health.
Babies born vaginally take in healthy microbes from the birth canal, organisms that babies delivered by cesarean section don’t pick up, Miller said.
That may place C-section babies at a disadvantage from the get-go, he said.
How dirty is dangerous?
Land Park mother Amanda Bauer said she tries to be careful about keeping her two young daughters clean.
She doesn’t carry hand sanitizer around with her, she said, but always makes sure her 7- and 9-year-olds wash their hands after going to the grocery store.
Around the house, she cleans off door handles, remote controls and other heavily touched items with Lysol wipes, especially when someone is sick.
Recent science supports Bauer’s beliefs.
A study from Swedish researchers found that children whose families washed dishes by hand had significantly lower rates of eczema and slightly lower rates of allergies than children whose families used a dishwasher.
Other studies have shown children who live with dogs and cats tend to be healthier because the pets pass on their own beneficial microbes.
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