A recent survey found that over half of us regularly carry around a bottle of antibacterial gel in our handbags or pockets; the clear gel has become pretty much an office necessity, with people squirting it on like it’s going out of fashion.
Coupled with antibacterial wipes and an avid hand-washing culture, it seems that in this day and age, germs don’t stand a chance.
Some might say that this is a good thing, however the science tells us differently…
If you’re constantly killing off every single little germ that you come across in everyday life, then chances are your immune system is sitting around, pretty bored and inactive. This therefore leads to more incidents of asthma and allergies amongst children, hence why the numbers of people suffering from these ailments has sky rocketed in the last decade.
The Hygiene Theory
This is all part of the leading theory entitled ‘the Hygiene Theory’ – which has been widely researched all over the world. The idea is that whilst the immune system is inactive and idle, it becomes bored and hence actively looks for something to do.
The body wants to fulfil its functions, and if the immune system is being prevented from doing so, it will attempt to work in any way it can. This means your immune system will end up attacking your own body, leading to cases of asthma and allergies. It’s a much-studied theory: Since 1997, scientists have published more than 6,000 research reports examining the apparent links between civilized living and allergies and asthma.
Recognising foreign bodies
And the Hygiene Theory doesn’t stop there – leading researchers have urged parents to be less strictly hygienic with their young children if they want them to grow up with strong, healthy immune systems.
This is all down to the fact that as toddlers, our bodies are growing and learning how to fend for themselves – immune system included. In order for a child’s immune system to be self-sufficient and protect itself from dangerous foreign bodies, it first needs to learn to recognise these foreign bodies. The problems begin when the immune system is starved of any contact with foreign bodies, because the children aren’t allowed to come into contact with any sort of germ.
Hence the immune system never learns the difference between foreign bodies and your own body, and will likely start to attack both. The result: diseases ranging from allergies and asthma to autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Further supporting evidence
Further evidence supporting this theory is the negative correlation between living with/nearby animals and suffering from asthma or allergy (if you live nearby animals, the likelihood of suffering from asthma or allergy decreases).
A study conducted in Europe showed that people living in rural farm houses near lots of farm animals had less genetic risk of allergies; this is thought to be due to the fact that they had a much higher exposure to endotoxins from the animals and therefore their immune systems learnt to recognise them from a younger age.
Your immune system is less likely to mistake your own body for a foreign body and less likely to attack itself.
Another study looked at the asthma prevalence in children from Tokelau (pacific atolls). 11 percent of Tokelauan children living in the rural area of Tokelau had asthma compared with 25 percent of Tokelauan children who had moved into the more modern environment of New Zealand where they were more protected from germs and animals endotoxins.
In a final simple example, recent studies have indicated that children with pets when they’re young are less likely to suffer from allergies as adults; this also lends credibility to the Hygiene Theory.
We’re not saying you should send your toddlers out to roll around in the dirt, but it seems it is possible to be too hygienic!
As it turns out, the old saying ‘a little bit of dirt is good for you’ holds some serious scientific truth…