If you are a parent, you’ve undoubtedly experienced the horror that comes from watching your small child pick up a clump of dirt, eye it carefully, and plop it into his/her mouth. Could there be an upside to this universal behavior?
A lot of emphasis is placed on sanitation by parents nowadays. Kids who race in from the playground and bolt down their snacks before washing their hands make parents cringe.
Oddly enough, although it may seem unsanitary, this is apparently a case where kids know what’s best for them.
As a general rule, anything that’s a natural act is the result of humanity evolving to deal with its surroundings. While obsessing over hand washing and general cleanliness may prevent some ailments, it also prevents exposure to elements that may help the body avoid allergies, asthma and other physical issues that are more common today than ever before.
That’s the logic behind the Hygiene Hypothesis. It postulates that the cleaner lifestyle of the modern era has caused our bodies to shift resources away from fighting infections. Instead of staying idle or moving onto more productive uses, the immune system has developed more susceptibility to allergies.
This explains a number of otherwise curious factors in modern medicine. For example, autoimmune diseases and immunological disorders are far less common in lesser-developed countries than they are in the United States and the developed world, where a high degree of cleanliness is pursued.
In the past, before the era of smaller families, indoor play and antibiotics, the human body was exposed to many more germs. That obviously leads to more exposure to bacteria and viruses.
In general, that’s not a good thing. Nobody who suffered with cholera a century ago would be upset at this change in emphasis; nor would a heartbroken family watching their newborn suffer with an infection caused by a less sterile operating room. Staying at home with a house full of sniffling people isn’t any fun either.
As a result, however, the body seems to be focusing on other foreign substances instead, which may explain the increase in allergy sufferers. Sneezing caused by certain artificial fragrances, itching caused by detergents—a child who develops a severe peanut allergy may react to another student’s PB&J sandwich. Far from keeping us safe, our emphasis on cleanliness may just be causing us to get sick in a different way.
What can be done to reverse this trend?
First of all, don’t overreact. As grandmother used to say, “a little bit of dirt and grime isn’t going to kill anyone.” Let the kids play and act naturally. It is not necessary to douse children with antibacterial wipes every time they pick up a rock.
In fact, there’s even a theory that if a pregnant woman is exposed to microbes, it might serve a positive purpose by helping the unborn child avoid allergies later in life. Our own bodies might just know more about how to stay healthy than the folks trying to sell soap and cleaning products.
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