Germs Can Be Good

August 1, 2016

As the global population increases, more work moves indoors, and world-wide travel is more frequent, we are exposed to many more germs than just 10 years ago. In fact, one study found that bacteria on office computer mice has increased three-fold since 2005 and during the period from 1940 to 2004, more than 300 new infections emerged. We are bombarded with products that promise to kill germs or that are made of antibacterial or antimicrobial material. It is no wonder that many people feel a little (or even a lot) germophobic.

Unfortunately, exposure to germs is unavoidable but luckily, most of it is harmless. Also fortunately for us, bad organisms are far outweighed by good ones– in the environment and on our bodies. We are actually covered in bacteria with billions on our skin and trillions in our intestines. This bacteria lives in friendly symbiosis with us and helps us digest food, absorb vitamins, and protects us from other bacteria that can make us ill. “Some bacteria produce vitamin K, which prevents bleeding, and others turn fiber into a compound that helps protect against cancer,” notes Vincent R. Young, M.D., assistant professor of internal medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

Additionally, research has found that not enough exposure to germs can cause your immune system to overreact. This can result in allergies, eczema, and even autoimmune disorders such as Crohn’s disease. When we are deprived of enough contact with common bacteria our immune system does not learn how to distinguish and react appropriately to threats. Studies have found that children tend to develop more allergies if they took antibiotics early in life or if their parents made them wash their hands frequently and bathe more than once a day. A 2008 study in the Journal of Infectious Diseases also links lower rates of asthma to infection with intestinal worms and the bacteria that causes stomach ulcers. And what’s true for children is even more so for adults. In 2002, a massive survey published in the Journal of Clinical Immunology showed that hay fever, allergies and asthma are less common in people who have been exposed to hepatitis A, herpes virus 1 (the one to blame for cold sores) and toxoplasma, a parasite found in cat poop.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you want to roll in mud every day (or let your children do so) but if you are constantly disinfecting every surface in your home or washing your hands so frequently that your skin is becoming cracked and dry, then you’re probably going a little overboard. You should adhere to safe food handling and cooking guidelines, as well as washing your hands frequently (like every time you enter your home, or after you’ve been in contact with a lot of people), and of course, avoid touching your face unless your hands are clean. It’s a good idea to disinfect surfaces after someone has been ill in your home or office, but disinfecting doesn’t need to happen daily or multiple times per day. The best way to stay healthy is to boost your immune system by eating well, exercising, and getting plenty of rest. All the hand sanitizer in the world won’t help if you aren’t taking care of yourself.

So don’t be afraid of germs and don’t let avoiding germs interfere with your daily life. Life can be messy and that’s not always bad!