Do they help or hinder our ability to fight infections?
Human beings harbour hundreds of thousands of bacteria – in our gut, up our noses and all over our skin. The vast majority of these microbes are very beneficial to our existence. They help us to digest food, extract nutrients, strengthen our immune system and protect us from harmful, disease- causing bacteria.
Collectively, this bacteria is referred to as our micro-biome. We are first exposed to bacteria as we travel through our mother’s birth canal. Later on, we pick up more microbes from other people, pets, foods that we consume and other aspects of our environment. All in all we will incorporate up to 10,000 different species in our own individual micro-biome.
Fear of germs grows
Since the advent of antibiotics, most bacterial infections are easily treated and rarely life threatening. But the success of antibiotics has led us to become “germophobic.” Over the past 10 to 15 years, the use of antimicrobial/antibacterial cleaners, soaps, and toothpaste has become widespread. The downside of the use of antibiotics is of course their overuse and the subsequent development of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria.
In a similar fashion, using antimicrobial cleaners may contribute to antibiotic resistance in the environment. When a disinfecting agent is used for cleaning purposes, it will kill a large percentage of germs, but a few resistant strains will remain. That means that we are ‘selectively’ breeding the more resistant strains and actually increasing our risk of infection over time.
What’s more, according to the “hygiene hypothesis”, too much cleanliness can affect our immune system and promote allergic and auto-immune diseases (such as Crohn’s disease or Ulcerative Colitis).
And there’s more bad news. The primary ingredient in these products is Triclosan, which is not just a disinfectant but also a hormone disruptor. That means that it can interfere with the normal expression of hormones naturally produced by the body. Children are especially vulnerable to these hormonal changes because their cells are growing and changing more rapidly than adults’.
The use of antimicrobial soaps and cleaners in the home has also been associated with a worsening of allergies, asthma and eczema.
While antimicrobial products may be useful in industrial situations such as hospitals, they really are not necessary in the home.
Make safer choices
If you’re concerned about the spread of colds and flu, there are simple things you can do that work just as well. Here are some safe ways to wash away bacteria and viruses in the home without increasing the risk of infection or allergies.
- Look for green cleaning products available at supermarkets and health food stores.
- Make your own products out of household ingredients.
- Clean countertops and stoves with a spray cleaner made out of equal parts vinegar and water.
- Scrub sinks and bathtubs with a combination of baking soda and liquid soap.
- Clean your toilet (and open your drains) by tossing in baking soda, then vinegar, letting it sit for 20 – 30 minutes, followed by a scrub or rinse.
- Encourage lots of hand washing with plain soap and water, especially before meals and after using the bathroom.
Good Bacteria: Get a Pet
Pets, especially ones that spend a great deal of time outdoors, are a great way of expanding our micro-biome. Children who grow up with a dog, for instance, have been found to have healthier immune systems, fewer colds, ear infections and allergies than those who don’t. Some researchers speculate that the microbes a pet brings in helps to stimulate a strong immune system in humans.
This article appeared in the October/November 2013 issue of LocalParent.