Obsessive cleanliness ain't good for you

Is that so? Research shows that a little dirt actually does us a lot of good; it makes us healthier, even smarter.
Hindustan Times | By Kavita Devgan
UPDATED ON MAR 08, 2014 08:25 PM IST

A clean house is the new urban fantasy. Spotless floors 99.9% free of germs. Gleaming kitchen surfaces wiped down with "doctor-approved" soap. Water pouring out from RO purifiers. Ozone disinfectant devices to sterilise fruits, veggies and meat. Toilets doused with antibacterial gels.

Air-conditioners keeping out every speck of dust. And insect repellent liberally sprayed in every crevice. There's medicated soap in the bathroom, germ-resistant sponges in the kitchen and in the bedroom, bacteria-retardant sheets and hypo-allergenic pillows. And when leaving home, don't forget your little tube of hand sanitiser and wet wipes to clean any surface you will come in contact with.

Read: Simple ways to maintain hand hygiene

When did our homes become such sterile environments? How did every germ, every little speck of dirt become the enemy? Where did this urge to destroy, spray away and eliminate every single microbe come from? And who led us to believe this is actually good for us? If we believe the research uncovering now, it seems our over-sanitised world isn't keeping us safe. It's actually making us more vulnerable to illnesses.
No one is immune

According to Dr Rommel Tickoo, consultant of Internal Medicine at Delhi's Max hospital, the dangers of a too-clean environment had been pointed out as early as 1989. Epidemiologist David P Strachan's paper, titled Hygiene Hypothesis, found that allergic diseases like hay fever and eczema, and certain autoimmune diseases were less common in children from larger families.

"This was because they were predictably exposed to more infectious agents through their siblings, than in children from families with only one child," he says. Recently, researchers at the University of Copenhagen have published studies along similar lines. They studied 411 children from birth to age 12, and identified a direct link between the number of different bacteria found in their bodies and the risk of developing allergies later in life - more bacteria meant better resistance to allergies.

Dr Tickoo explains why obsessive cleanliness has disastrous consequences on our wellbeing. "Early exposure to the naturally occurring microbes in soil helps build stronger, more disease-resistant bodies," he explains. "Without enough exposure to different bacteria and microbes, the immune system does not get enough practice. It becomes kind of lazy, and also begins to attack inwards, leading to higher rates of asthma, eczema and other autoimmune diseases." So quite simply, the more bacteria we eliminate externally, the less our body learns to fight them from within, weakening our disease-fighting ability and making us more vulnerable to disease and infection.

Allergy cases across India have risen over the years. Ravi Mantha, a science writer and author of All About Bacteria believes that they're a result of our immune systems over-reacting. "There is a lot of evidence that interacting with dirt fine-tunes our immune system," he says.

The dirty side of clean
Of course, this doesn't mean you abandon your daily bath, throw away the toothpaste, neglect the dusting or stop washing your hands before handling food and after using the washroom. Basic hygiene is still non-negotiable as it is the best way to rid yourself of disease-causing germs. "But it is possible that a person can be too clean for his own good," says Dr Tickoo. And you might be too clean without even realising it.

"The main compounds in antibiotic wipes, creams and soaps - triclosan and triclocarban - are now also being added to chopping boards, refrigerators, plastic lunch boxes, and mattresses in an attempt to halt the spread of microbes," he says. "But studies show that these antibiotic chemicals are no more likely to prevent gastrointestinal or respiratory illness than regular soap. In fact, for chronically sick patients, antibiotic soaps were actually associated with increases in the frequencies of fevers, runny noses and coughs."

Read: To breathe easier, clean up vehicles

Advertisements for disinfectant household products are probably the worst offenders when it comes to demonising bacteria. Most of them portray their products as a solution to disease, not a possible cause of it. And the majority of them are presented as specifically to keep children safe.

"Just look at the term 'disinfect', which is a term that only a marketing genius could have thought of," Mantha writes in his book. "It is a opposite of infect, a word that in our minds evokes a notion that some bad bugs have taken over a surface in our body or home and are threatening to wage a war against us. In a single word, 'disinfectant' not only puts fear in our minds that we are under attack, but also offers a solution in a bottle that will repel invaders. Brilliant!"

Mantha's book cites several problems with this approach. Bacteria found on surfaces in the home and on the body are actually perfectly safe - they do not need to be repelled or interfered with. And disinfectants are only temporarily effective. "The bacteria are back within minutes or even seconds,' he writes. "Using disinfectant is the household equivalent of trying to empty the ocean using a bucket!"

When dirty is the smart choice
"There is an astonishing new discovery regarding dirt," writes Ravi Mantha.

http://www.hindustantimes.com/Images/popup/2014/3/Brunch_pg18_31.jpg"It turns out that dirt is full of a bacterium called Vaccae that is not only harmless to humans, but actually stimulates the production of serotonin in the brain, which improves our mood!" Yes, it helps beat depression too.

More good news: Research presented in May 2010 and published in the journal, Science Daily revealed that bacteria in the soil not only lowers depression and anxiety but also can make you smarter; it accelerates learning by stimulating neuron growth. So let your kids play in the mud every now and then.

Draw the clean line
Dr Chand Wattal, head of Microbiology at Delhi's Sir Ganga Ram Hospital warns against trying to make your home completely sterile. For one thing, it's impossible, but more importantly, it is not needed. "We have evolved with these micro organisms and need to exist in harmony with them," he says.

He explains that our skins are home to two kinds of microbes; resident flora (that which is always present) and transient flora (that which transfers onto us). He says that good old soap and water is enough to get rid of transient flora. But anti-bacterial chemicals destroy everything in their path, even the resident flora, which is good for you. This upsets the balance of good and bad bacteria and "may, in fact, lead to problems like dermatitis and allergy". Washing away bacteria has another side effect. It often causes the bacteria to return as a more resistant strain - bad news, indeed, since diseases caused by resistant strains are harder to cure.

HT Column: Basic hygiene works better than drugs

A better strategy is to ensure that you have a healthier immune system by regular exposure to natural environment and work at building up your resistance from the inside. Mantha suggests restricting the fastidious cleanliness to the home toilet and the hospital's operating room. Avoid using products labelled anti-bacterial, germ-fighting, disinfectant and the like in your personal care and domestic cleaning routine. Use hypoallergenic pillows only if you are already allergic. Add disinfectant (or antibacterial soap) to your shower routine only on days you've walked through slush. Don't substitute those drying hand-sanitising gels for a tap wash. Don't sterilise every surface you come into contact with, and don't stop your child from playing outside. You and your family will emerge stronger.

Don't be a slob, though

* Filter drinking water. Tap water in India is unsafe for drinking.

http://www.hindustantimes.com/Images/popup/2014/3/Brunch_pg19_32.jpg* Clean your bathrooms. Toilets, especially basins, toilet seats and areas in direct contact with the body are hotbeds for disease-causing germs and need to be thoroughly cleaned.

* Wash your fruits and vegetables
. The still need a good rinse before cooking or consuming.

* Basic hygiene is essential. Don't neglect daily brushing of teeth and bathing, washing hands before meals and after washroom use.

http://www.hindustantimes.com/Images/popup/2014/3/Brunch_pg19_33.jpg* Moulds, fungi, damp and grout are still evil. They allow disease-causing germs to breed.

* Don't spread your germs. Cover your mouth when you cough, don't spit in public, bandage exposed wounds, trim your nails and if you have a contagious disease, for God's sake, don't mingle with people.

From HT Brunch, March 9

Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch

Story Saved